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Violence flares at Church of Nativity standoff

Israeli troops yesterday opened fire on three armed Palestinians emerging from the besieged Church of the Nativity, killing one, sending two staggering back into the shrine and drawing Palestinian fire, the army said.

The shootout came only hours after a fire broke out in the compound during another gunbattle. The flames damaged several rooms and offices, but not the 4th century church itself.

In another development, 10 Western activists dashed across Manger Square this afternoon and entered the church, delivering food to those inside. The Israeli army detained 13 activists who served as a decoy for those who managed to slip inside, the activists said.

"We succeeded in providing food to people who needed it," said Robert O'Neill, one of several Americans who made it into the church.

The Franciscan press office in Rome said several rooms and offices in the Franciscan monastery in the compound sustained fire damage. Palestinians in the compound said several rooms in the Greek Orthodox section were also damaged.

Three people were slightly burned as they battled to put out the blaze with buckets of water, Palestinians in the church said by telephone. Israel said it offered to help put out the flames, but that the Palestinians turned them down.

In Jerusalem, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, the papal envoy, met today with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and was to hold talks later in the day with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to try to resolve the standoff.

"I come to ask that everything be done ... to solve as soon as possible the tragic situation of Bethlehem and that the Basilica of the Nativity be restored to God," Etchegaray said after his meeting with Katsav.

The church remains the last point of contention from Israel's large-scale incursion into the West Bank that began on 29 March, after a series of deadly Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.

Los Angeles Times

3 May 2002