Twenty-six Palestinians emerge from Nativity siege

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The Independent Online

Twenty-six people came out of the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday while Israeli soldiers crouched all around, their guns trained on the tiny, low entrance.

One by one, Palestinians appeared in the doorway, and were led across Manger Square, under the guns, by one of the priests from inside, his habit blowing in the breeze.

We were allowed to the edge of Manger Square. In the middle of it lay the crushed remains of what appeared to be a bus. The paving stones glared white under the sun. Over our heads floated a large, white helium balloon, from which the Israelis have suspended a camera to watch what is going on inside the church compound.

Next to that was the large crane from which the Israelis have used a loudspeaker to broadcast recordings of gunfire and people screaming to unnerve those inside the church. Yesterday there was no loudspeaker.

At the side of the square was a building with "Peace Centre" written above the door, where talks between Israelis and Palestinians to end the siege have been going on. So far, they have only resulted in agreement for small numbers – such as yesterday's group – to come out.

The Palestinians were led to a group of Israeli soldiers, where they lifted their jackets to show they were not armed. They were offered cake, apples and water by the soldiers – but most of the Palestinians refused it, though they have been living on lettuce and herbs boiled in salt water for several days, according to those who came out of the church last week.

For the 26 we saw come out – the largest group to leave the church yet – the siege was over. But more than 100 Palestinians were still believed to be inside, some of them injured. One of the men who left yesterday had to be brought out on a stretcher.

At least five people have been killed in and around the church during the siege. Twice, fires have been started in the compound. A Palestinian who tried to put one out was shot dead by the Israelis – as was a deaf bellringer who tried to cross the square, and appeared not to hear a warning from the soldiers.

Inside, the Israelis say, are two dozen militants suspected of involvement in attacks on Israelis and that is why they have besieged one of Christianity's holiest shrines for three and a half weeks, with Israeli soldiers frequently firing into the church.

The others inside are unarmed local civilians and Palestinian policemen – they are legally armed as part of their job – most of whom are not suspected of any involvement in attacks on Israelis. They took shelter in the church when the tanks arrived in Bethlehem. With them are some 30 monks who have volunteered to stay to prevent a bloodbath.

One of these, Father Ibrahim Faltas, the Franciscan custodian of the church, led out the men one by one yesterday, crossing and recrossing the square under the Israeli guns. Most of the 26 who left were believed to be civilians, a few were Palestinian police. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman, breezily briefing reporters while snipers crouched behind him, said one was a senior Palestinian security official. He was taken away on his own for questioning.

The others were put on a bus and driven away. The Israeli army says they will be released once their identities have been verified.

Meanwhile the Israeli security cabinet voted yesterday yet again to delay a United Nations fact-finding mission to the refugee camp at Jenin. Israel has been resisting the mission, mandated by a UN Ssecurity Council resolution to find out what happened in Jenin, where the Israeli army bulldozed civilian homes.

The security cabinet voted not to co-operate with the UN inquiry until six Israeli demands were met. Because of the Israeli objections to the mission, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, "is minded to disband the team", a senior aide said.

An investigation by The Independent last week found that almost half of the Palestinian dead identified so far in the Jenin camp were civilians.