'Thirty dead' in heavy fighting as Israelis storm refugee camp

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The Independent Online

In the worst day of fighting for more than a week, Palestinian fighters claimed as many as 30 Palestinians had been killed in a refugee camp in the occupied Palestinian city of Jenin yesterday. The Israeli army said "very close combat" was taking place in the area, and that two of its soldiers had been killed in fighting overnight. It was impossible to verify the claims of either side.

In the worst day of fighting for more than a week, Palestinian fighters claimed as many as 30 Palestinians had been killed in a refugee camp in the occupied Palestinian city of Jenin yesterday. The Israeli army said "very close combat" was taking place in the area, and that two of its soldiers had been killed in fighting overnight. It was impossible to verify the claims of either side.

Amid protests from across the world, Israel yesterday continued to defy George Bush's call to pull its troops out of Palestinian towns in the West Bank, in the worst day of fighting yet. The most serious clashes yesterday were in Jenin and Nablus. In Jenin, the one thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that people were dying inside the refugee camp.

The crowded narrow streets of the camp are usually home to more than 9,000 people. The Israeli army has already occupied Jenin city, but Palestinian fighters have been holding out inside the camp, and the Israeli army said a full-scale assault was under way. There were reports that gunmen were handing out explosives to residents.

"Nobody works as Fatah or Hamas, everybody works together," Jamal Abu al-Haija, a local Hamas leader, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press agency. "All the factions have distributed explosive belts and hand grenades to the people of the camp to defend themselves." Locals in Jenin said no one has been allowed to leave the camp, and that women and children are trapped in the midst of the Israeli assault.

The commander of Israeli forces in Jenin, Brigadier Eyal Shlein, told Israeli radio: "Yes, it is a tightly packed refugee camp. I am sure they do not like it, and I imagine that there are injuries. But people who raise children willing to commit suicide, who choose this path, they are expected to pay the price." Brigadier Shlein said the Palestinian fighters in the camp were putting up a fierce resistance. Abu Irmaila, a Palestinian fighter inside the camp, was quoted by the Reuters agency as saying: "I myself counted 30 dead bodies. There are a tremendous number of injured people." His account could not be verified, nor could claims from various sources that houses inside the camp were being destroyed.

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement calling on the US and the international community to "intervene immediately to stop the massacres and the war of extermination being waged by the Israeli occupation army". An Israeli army spokesman responded: "Any claim of intentional killing is absolutely baseless and a lie, it's pure unadulterated propaganda."

Dr Ziad Ayaseh, the hospital director in Jenin, claimed ambulance crews had been warned by Israeli forces they would be fired on if they went to the aid of the injured, and that shots had been fired at one ambulance driver. His claim could not be verified, but the International Red Cross has publicly accused Israel of preventing ambulances from reaching the injured.

Meanwhile, Vatican diplomats were negotiating to end a stand-off at the traditional birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem. Israeli troops have surrounded the Church of the Nativity, where 200 Palestinian gunmen have sought sanctuary. Sources in the Vatican said the church was proposing a deal under which the Palestinians would leave their weapons inside the church and the Israeli troops would withdraw and allow the Palestinians to leave. Around 40 Franciscan monks and four nuns are in the church with the gunmen, and say they are staying to prevent a "bloodbath".

Father David Jaeger, a spokesman for the Franciscan custodians of Roman Catholic sites in the Holy Land, said he feared the monks were being described as "hostages" to justify storming the church.

"The friars are not hostages; they are in their own house, in the precise place where they belong," he said.

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