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Shots, fire erupt at Church of Nativity
Associated Press photo Smoke pours from the Church of the Nativity as a flare explodes over Bethlehem early Thursday.

Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Fire erupted in the Church of the Nativity compound early Thursday during a fierce exchange of gunfire between Palestinians and the Israeli forces besieging it.

Flames leaped out of three rooms in the Orthodox Christian and Franciscan section of the large compound. Palestinians said by telephone from inside the church that three people were slightly burned trying to put out the blaze.

The nighttime fire was about 50 feet from the 4th-century basilica itself, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. It was not known if any of the nearly 200 people who are in the building were staying where the fire erupted.

An uneasy calm appeared to return to the area after about 30 minutes and the flames appeared to have subsided.

Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said the fire was out.

Gold accused Palestinian fighters inside the church of starting it. "The fire that broke out had nothing to do with an Israeli operation," he said on CNN.

At his Ramallah compound, Arafat appeared to be shaking with anger as he faced cameras after receiving word of the fire.

"How could the world possibly be silent about this atrocious crime?" he said to journalists and Palestinian supporters who rushed into his offices after the Israelis pulled out of his compound.

"I don't care if this room I'm sitting in blows up. What concerns me is what is happening at the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven."

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Israeli forces have been surrounding the church since April 2, when more than 200 Palestinians, including gunmen, took refuge inside as Israeli troops invaded.

An Associated Press reporter saw Israeli soldiers firing flares and throwing smoke bombs. But it was not clear what started the shooting or the fire.

There was no immediate word of further casualties. About 30 people have left the church in the last several days, according to agreements between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. However, there is still a standoff on the main issue, the fate of the gunmen. Israel insists they must either surrender or accept exile, while the Palestinians are prepared only to take them to the Gaza Strip.

The church remains the last point of contention from Israel's large-scale incursion into the West Bank that began March 29, after a series of deadly Palestinian suicide bomb attacks. On Wednesday, Israel began withdrawing its forces from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's office building in the West Bank town of Ramallah after a U.S.-brokered deal, under which six Palestinians wanted by Israel were taken from the building to a Palestinian prison in Jericho.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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