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Israeli Offensive Continues in Bethlehem - 2002-04-04

Israel's military has taken control of the West Bank town of Nablus and a standoff between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops continues in Bethlehem. Palestinian gunmen hiding inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity say Israeli troops have fired at a door of the church but Israel's army categorically denies the charge. Several hundred Israeli-Arab protesters have been demonstrating in front of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

Despite mounting international pressure, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the military offensive will not stop.

"We are going to continue because that is the only way to reach a situation that we can discuss peace. Peace might be discussed only when there will be a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement," he said.

Two European Union envoys are in Israel to try to persuade Mr. Sharon to pull the troops out of the West Bank.

Prime Minister Sharon refuses to ease the seven-day siege on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters and will not let the foreign diplomats meet with him.

U.S. peace envoy Anthony Zinni is also talking with the Israeli leader. Mr. Zinni has been in Israel for nearly a month trying to broker a ceasefire without much success. Israeli troops have clashed with Palestinian militants across the West Bank for the seventh day of a military campaign aimed at destroying terrorist networks there. Fighting continues in the northern West bank towns of Jenin and Nablus.

The Palestinian Authority has called on all Palestinians to close ranks for a long-term struggle against what it calls an unjust war.

In Bethlehem, a resident hiding inside the Church of the Nativity says Israeli troops blew a hole in a back door of the Church but Israel's military denies the charge.

Spokesman Olivier Rafowitz said the holy Christian shrine is off-limits to Israel's army.

"We don't act, we don't operate inside the church or in the compound. In the last hour we know that a few terrorists, very senior terrorists have left the church with weapons also maybe explosive belts," he said.

Dozens of gunmen and civilians have been hiding inside the church since Tuesday after fleeing skirmishes with Israeli tanks and troops in the city's main square.

An Italian journalist who had been inside the church on Wednesday said the Palestinian militants vowed they would never give up.