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Israeli-Palestinian Battles Continue in Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem - 2002-04-06

Fierce fighting continues to engulf Palestinian refugee camps in Jenin and Nablus on the West Bank as Israel intensifies its military offensive there.

Israeli troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships are battling Palestinian militants in refugee camps in the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus.

Fighting continues in Bethlehem and so does a stand-off between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen hiding inside the Church of the Nativity.

Israel's military said it will not assault the holy Christian shrine. The gunmen refuse to surrender. Some 200 gunmen and civilians remain inside the church along with 40 Franciscan monks and four nuns for the fifth day while talks continue to try to resolve the situation.

Elsewhere in Bethlehem, the United Nations Relief agency working with Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, was allowed to enter a camp of 4,000 refugees to bring much-needed food supplies.

After eight days, the military offensive shows little sign of easing. Israeli spokesman Aryeh Mekel said the campaign will continue for as long as its takes to uproot terrorist networks operating on the West Bank.

"Our government has decided when the operation should start and our government will decide when the operation will be over," Mr. Mekel said.

President Bush has joined European allies and Arab leaders calling on Israel to withdraw its forces. He is sending U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in the next few days to add his political weight to reviving ceasefire negotiations.

Mr. Mekel said his government is ready to cooperate with Mr. Powell but said a cease-fire is only possible when the attacks against Israel stop.

Palestinian officials said they are ready to cooperate with Mr. Powell too. But chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinian officials will boycott talks with Mr. Powell, if the U.S. diplomat does not meet with Palestinian leader Arafat.

Mr. Arafat remains under siege at his Ramallah offices, surrounded by Israeli tanks and troops.