Pace of negotiations over Church of Nativity quickens

Sunday, May 5, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israel and the Palestinians held high-level talks Saturday to try to break the monthlong standoff at one of Christianity's holiest shrines on the eve of Orthodox Christians' Easter and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure for the United States.

Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters by telephone that they had compiled a list of 123 names of those inside the church to give to the negotiators -- a possible prelude to hammering out the fate of the wanted Palestinian militants among them. The talks were taking place at an undisclosed location.

Demonstrating the continuing volatility of the situation as the standoff entered its second month, a militant inside the church compound was fatally wounded by an Israeli sniper, and the Israeli army said a Palestinian bomb-making factory was discovered only about 100 yards from the church compound.

The accelerated push to find a solution to the standoff in Bethlehem -- where the last major contingent of Israeli troops remains in the wake of a massive military offensive in the West Bank last month -- came as Sharon was preparing to leave today for Washington to discuss President Bush's plans for a Mideast peace conference.

Advisers to Sharon said he would propose that terms for a long-term interim deal with the Palestinians be arranged at a regional conference attended by Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and moderate Arab states.

The gathering would be held at the level of foreign ministers, avoiding the issue of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's attendance. Sharon has branded Arafat a terrorist and has said he does not consider him a partner in negotiations.

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