Church siege accord near?

Church siege accord near?

Ibrahim Hazboun

Church siege accord near?

BETHLEHEM: As Sharon arrives inU.S. for talks, Palestinians say deal is made, while Israelis say negotiations are continuing.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian officials said early today that a deal had been struck to end a monthlong standoff at the Church of Nativity, although a top Israeli official said there had been progress but no agreement.

Israeli officials said negotiationscontinued as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in the United States for talks with President Bush.

More than 200 Palestinians, including about 30 gunmen, fled into the church April 2, ahead of invading Israeli forces, at the height of Israel’s large-scale incursion into the West Bank.

“The deal consists of six to eight people to be (deported to) Italy and more than 30 to Gaza,” said Hassan Abed Rabbo, a senior member of in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party. Those sent to Gaza could be imprisoned underthe watch of American and British jailers in a deal similarto one brokered last week which facilitated an end to Arafat’s confinement.

Inside the church — the traditional birthplace of Jesus — there are clerics and some protesters, inaddition to the militants. Officials from both sides were reviewing a list of 132 names of those inside. Palestinianssaid most would be freed.

But Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay denied that a deal had been reached. “There is no agreement yet,” he said. “They are negotiating our demands for people to be deported.” He would not comment on the details under discussion.

Palestinian officialssaid the accord was worked out with representatives from the United States, Britain, the Vatican and the European Union. On Wednesday, Arafat left his office after more than a month of captivity under a U.S.-sponsored compromise that placed six Palestinian militants in a jail guarded by U.S. andBritish guards.

In the wake of last month’s large-scale Israeli military offensive in the West Bank, Bethlehem is the only Palestinian city still occupied by Israeli troops, who arrested 13 people there late Sunday, including a local Hamas leader. A deal would likely mean an end to the Israeli presence in the city. But brief incursions and raids into Palestinian cities and towns continued.

Israelisoldiers mistakenly shot and killed a woman and her two small children in a vineyard in the northern West Bank after anexplosive went off under their tank, Israeli military officials said.

The military expressed regret over the killingsand said soldiers had fired on suspicious figures after theexplosion, according to Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The woman’s husband and four other men, farmers who had been working in the vineyard, were arrested by soldiers, witnesses said.

Early today, two Palestinians were killed and two Israeli soldiers wounded after an hours-long fire fight in a citrus grove near the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army said. Israel said the two Palestinians, armed with guns and grenades, infiltrated Israel andattacked the soldiers before they were eventually shot and killed by the troops.

Boy killed

In another incident, Israeli troops shot and killed a 9-year- old Palestinian boy in the Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank. Residents said the soldiers shot from machine guns mounted on tanks situated at the entrance to the Palestinian-controlled camp after an incursion into the town earlier in the day. Media reports said the Israeli incursion was an attempt to thwart a planned attack on its citizens. Sharon left Sunday for the United States with a 91-page booklet of documents that Israel claims prove Arafatis directly involved in funding terrorists.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo labeled the booklet “ridiculous” and said that all the documents “were forged.”

One document is a request for funding for militants including Raed Karmi, head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, responsible for dozens of attacks against Israel. On the document Arafat writes, “Allocate $600 for each one,” and signs his name.

Palestinians say the money was for political and social activities, not attacks. Karmi was killed Jan. 14 inan explosion widely attributed to Israel.

Sharon was alsoslated to present limited peace proposals in his fifth meeting with Bush, but Israeli officials cautioned against any optimism that a deal could be reached soon, after nearly 20 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. “We need to be able to keep talking, but with another Palestinian leadership,” said Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat, who was accompanying Sharon. “Anyone who thinks we can reach an agreement quickly is sorely mistaken.”

Rice critical

Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice,told Fox TV on Sunday that “the Palestinian leadership thatis there now . . . is not the kind of leadership that can lead to the kind of Palestinian state that we need.”

Israeli forces briefly moved into the Tulkarem refugee camp. Israel Radio reported that about 20 tanks were involved in an operation to thwart a potential terrorist attack, and five Palestinian were arrested. Israeli military officials said theoperation was limited, but gave no further details.

Sharon was expected to outline to Bush his vision for a long-term interim peace deal with the Palestinians that would be hammered out at a regional conference attended by Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and moderate Arab states.

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2002

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