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Nine Palestinians Leave Church of Nativity - 2002-04-25

Nine young Palestinians have left the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Palestinian gunmen are under siege by Israeli troops.

The Palestinian youths walked out of the basilica and the bodies of two dead Palestinians were carried out in the first major evacuation since the siege began more than three weeks ago.

Two monks escorted the young people out of the church as part of an agreement reached between Palestinian negotiators and the Israeli army.

Negotiators had earlier agreed to allow the release of ten to 15 youths. The bodies of the men killed earlier by gunfire around the Church of the Nativity were taken away in an ambulance.

Israeli troops questioned the young Palestinians and gave them food and water. At least 200 people, including Palestinian gunmen, priests, monks and nuns, have been holed up in the church since early this month when it was surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks.

Israel is demanding that about 30 Palestinian militants in the group be put on trial in the Jewish state or go into exile.

Palestinians say the men should be escorted to the Gaza Strip.

The basilica is built over the site where Christian tradition says Jesus was born. Earlier, a makeshift Palestinian military court in Chairman Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah sentenced four militants to jail for the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister.

The prison terms ranged from one year to 18 years with hard labor.

The four Palestinians were sentenced in connection with the assassination last October of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi in a Jerusalem hotel.

Mr. Arafat approved the sentences.

The radical group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP, claimed responsibility for the assassination, saying it was in response to the targeted killing of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, by the Israeli military.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed Thursday's sentencing, repeating his demand that the Palestinians responsible for Mr. Zeevi's death must be extradited to Israel.

Israel said their extradition is a condition for lifting the military siege on Mr. Arafat's headquarters.

The Palestinian leader has been confined to Ramallah since last December.

Also Thursday, Israeli troops and tanks carried out a brief incursion near the West Bank city of Hebron, killing at least one Palestinian.

In the Gaza Strip the army says soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement there.