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Heavy gunfire around Bethlehem Church of the Nativitiy

Heavy shooting has broken out near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as the Israeli siege there enters its third week.

The BBC's correspondent at the scene says she saw bullets, flares and what looked like smoke bombs fired near the building. This is the fiercest exchange of fire near the building since the standoff began, she says. The exchanges have now subsided.

Those inside the church said that Israeli troops had tried but failed to storm it. The Israeli army confirmed the military operation, but said its troops had neither fired at the church nor tried to make an entry.

About 200 people, including armed Palestinians, civilians and church staff have been barricaded inside the church for two weeks. The stand-off has provoked outrage from the Vatican, which has accused Israel of reneging on its obligation to protect religious sites. One monk was injured when he was fired on by Israeli soldiers.

Independent Catholic News reports that talks are underway for the release of an elderly priest and four nuns, holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the 15th day. Fr Paul Delalan, 86, a French Christian Brother and the oldest member of the community, together with four nuns, three Italian and one Egyptian are not well, according to the Franciscan Custodian in the Holy Land, Fr Giovanni Battistelli.

Bethlehem, Franciscans confirm: "Shots and explosions outside nativity convent" (MISNA)


17 Apr 2002