Palestinians 'quit talks' as militant is shot dead at Bethlehem church

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A suspected Palestinian militant was shot dead yesterday in the garden of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which has been besieged by the Israelis for three and a half weeks.

Nidal Abayat, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, was at least the fourth man to be killed by Israeli forces during the stand-off at the church.

American sources said yesterday that a deal was close on ending the siege. But Palestinian negotiators were reported to have broken off talks after Mr Abayat was killed, saying they would not resume until Israeli soldiers stopped firing on the church and allowed in food and medicine.

About 200 Palestinians took sanctuary in the church, believed to be the birthplace of Christ, when Israeli tanks attacked Bethlehem. The army has been surrounding the church because it says between 35 and 40 militants wanted for attacks on Israelis are among those inside.

Alongside the militants are many unarmed civilians who fled the fighting, and some 30 monks who volunteered to stay to prevent a "bloodbath". Also inside are members of the Palestinian security forces, who are armed legitimately and not suspected of involvement in attacks on Israelis.

An Israeli army source initially claimed a sniper shot Mr Abayat because he was firing indiscriminately with an automatic weapon. But that statement was retracted. If Mr Abayat was not firing, he may have been trying to get food. Palestinian youths allowed out of the church last week said food supplies had run out and those inside were eating lettuce and herbs picked from the garden. They claimed Israeli troops fired on those who went to the garden for food.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are believed to have been involved in several suicide bombings and gun attacks on Israeli civilians. But the first to die at the hands of the Israelis, on 4 April, was a civilian, a deaf bellringer crossing Manger Square, close to the church.

Khaled Syam, a Palestinian policeman, was shot dead as he tried to put out a fire inside the compound. One youth allowed out of the church said another of the dead was a policeman from the Gaza Strip, shot when he went to the garden for food.