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Israelis, Palestinians Meet to End Standoff at Bethlehem Church - 2002-04-23


Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held direct talks Tuesday on ways to end the military stand-off around the Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

The negotiations were aimed at ending the siege around the shrine, built over the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Dozens of Palestinian gunmen took refugee in the church, when Israeli troops reoccupied the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on April 2.

The operation was part of a wider military assault against the West Bank, launched in the wake of a campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.

Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, said the Israeli army's actions against such forms of terrorism have been a success. "Most importantly we dismantled the infrastructure of suicide bombers, thereby saving the lives of many Israelis and demonstrating to other countries that it is possible to contain the ominous spread of this form of terrorism," Mr. Sharon said.

He said that while the offensive against the West Bank is winding down, some operations are not yet completed.

Mr. Sharon said that the soldiers will not leave Bethlehem until Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity, who are wanted by Israeli authorities, are arrested.

He has given the Palestinian gunmen the choice to surrender and stand trial in Israel or to go into permanent exile.

Meanwhile, violence continued in other parts of the West Bank.

Hooded Palestinian vigilantes in Hebron Tuesday shot dead three Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

The killings took place in the same spot where hours earlier, an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a car killing two Palestinian militants.

The executions came after a mob of Palestinian gunmen dragged the three men out of a prison in Hebron, meeting little resistance from Palestinian police.

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