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Clashes overshadow talks to end Nativity Church siege

The killing by the Israeli military of four Palestinians and the arrest of a further 12 has stalled the finalisation of a deal to end the five-week stand-off at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where more than 100 Palestinians are surrounded by Israeli soldiers.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in Washington that an agreement was near, but added: "We need one or two little problems solved".

Among those involved in efforts to end the stand-off is the Pope's special envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who arrived in the Middle East last week.

It was expected that siege would end earlier. On Saturday, Fr Raed Abusahlia, from the Latin Patriarchate, had expressed hope that the people trapped in the Church of the Nativity would be freed in time for the Orthodox Easter Sunday.

Peace activists who managed to slip through the Israeli security cordon around the Church of the Nativity, have said conditions inside the compound are desperate.

Alistair Hillman, 30, from Porthcawl in Wales told BBC Wales that many inside the Cathedral are very weak, living on a diet of pasta stew and lemon leaves. He said: "We have a couple of people who are injured and need more treatment than we can give."

Hillman, who described the mood inside the building as "hopeful", said the Orthodox section has suffered heavy damage in the crossfire, with windows blown out. The ancient frescoes were ridden with bullet holes, he added.

Timeline: Bethlehem Siege (BBC)


7 May 2002