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Church standoff agreement nearing

Monday, May 6, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Palestinian officials said early Monday 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 deal.

Israeli officials said negotiations on the Bethlehem church standoff continued 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 in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party. About 100 people are still in the church, including clerics and some protesters. Palestinians said the rest would be freed from the church, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Israel says not yet

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

Palestinian officials said the accord was worked out by the Vatican and the European Union. On Wednesday, Arafat left his office after 34 days of captivity under a U.S.-sponsored compromise that placed six Palestinian militants in a jail guarded by U.S. and British 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. But brief incursions and raids into Palestinian cities and towns continued Sunday.

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

The military expressed regret over the killings and said soldiers had fired on suspicious figures after the explosion, 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.

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 Arafat is directly involved in funding terrorists.

Terrorism links denied

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 in an explosion widely attributed to Israel.

Sharon was also slated 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."

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told Fox TV on Sunday that "the Palestinian leadership that is 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 the operation was limited, but gave no further details.

Arafat held talks Sunday at his Ramallah office with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, Arafat's first meeting with an Arab official since his 34-day confinement by Israeli tanks.

Egypt will work with the United States in an effort to work out an end to Israeli-Palestinian fighting and a resumption of peace talks, Maher said.

"The United States, monitor of the peace process, has a very big responsibility to continue working for this peace as long as the basis of peace is still there," Maher said.

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.

Egypt has conditioned its participation in such a conference on Israel's withdrawal from recently-occupied Palestinian lands. Syria has indicated it would not attend the conference.

Plans for the gathering were announced last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell, with the backing of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. U.S. officials have suggested the conference will be held in June.

The United States has not yet set the venue for the conference.


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