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Relief Workers Search for Palestinian Bodies - 2002-04-15

Palestinian medical officials accompanied by Israeli soldiers have begun searching for bodies in the Jenin refugee camp, which has been the scene of fierce fighting in the West Bank.

Teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Palestinian Red Crescent, and Israeli troops are moving through the devastated Jenin refugee camp to retrieve the bodies of Palestinians killed during deadly fighting there.

Several convoys of ambulances are driving through the camp, where there has been widespread destruction after street-to-street combat.

Palestinians have charged that hundreds of people have been killed in the camp, including many civilians.

The Israeli military estimates that dozens died, most of them gunmen.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed holding a U.S. sponsored Middle East peace conference. He says Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Palestinian representatives would be invited.

A spokesman for the prime minister says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would not take part in the conference.

But Mr. Arafat has expressed conditional acceptance of the idea, saying it must come with the immediate withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from Palestinian-ruled areas in the West Bank.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was more critical, calling Mr. Sharon's proposal a waste of time.

In the West Bank, the cities of Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, and Bethlehem remain under Israeli military curfew, along with several refugee camps and villages.

The Israeli army says two soldiers were lightly wounded when Palestinian gunmen opened fire near Manger Square in Bethlehem. About 200 Palestinians, many of them armed, have been hiding in the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot, where tradition says Jesus was born.

The basilica is surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks in a siege that has gone on for the past two-weeks.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently on a one-day trip to Lebanon and Syria, has had little success in trying to mediate a cease-fire. Israel has refused demands to withdraw soldiers from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.

The massive military operation was launched late last month after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis.