April 24, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli and Palestinian officials reported progress Tuesday after their first face-to-face talks in an effort to end a three-week standoff at the Church of the Nativity.

About 200 Palestinians, including local officials, several children and about 30 terrorist suspects wanted by Israel, have been holed up in the church since Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem.

The soldiers are blockading the shrine, which marks the site where tradition holds that Jesus was born, and demanding that the wanted men inside give themselves up. Israel says they should be tried in Israel or be deported. Palestinian negotiators want them tried in a Palestinian court under international supervision.

''We want to save the children, we want to save the church, and we want to find a peaceful solution to this crisis,'' Israeli army spokesman Olivier Rafowicz said.

Palestinian legislator Salah Tamari called the talks constructive.

Also Tuesday, Israel withdrew its support for a United Nations' fact-finding mission to investigate fighting in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had welcomed the commission, saying, ''We have nothing to hide.'' But Israeli officials charge that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had violated an agreement to consult with Israel on the makeup of the commission.

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry said Israel wanted more military and counterterrorism experts added to the team, assurances it would confine its activities to Jenin, and an investigation of Palestinian terrorist activities in Jenin. Annan did not rule out adding members to the team, but said he would not postpone the team's arrival in the Middle East. It is scheduled to arrive Saturday.

In Hebron, a Palestinian terrorist commander and his bodyguard were assassinated Tuesday by an Israeli rocket. Hours later, masked supporters of the dead commander bound three fellow Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israelis and shot them in the head. An angry crowd then spat on the bodies and kicked them, stringing up one of the corpses by an ankle from an electricity pylon.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the deterioration of law and order was a direct result of Israel's assault on Palestinian security forces during its three-week incursion into the West Bank. Israel says the operation was needed to stop terrorist attacks in Israel. Rabbo accused Israel of trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority and reoccupy the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking to U.S. Jewish leaders by satellite, said his war on Palestinian terror had created a new opportunity for peace. ''Once free of terror, we can move forward to implement the (CIA Director George) Tenet cease-fire agreement,'' Sharon said. ''We want to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbors.''

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