Five Palestinians came out of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity yesterday, amid reports that more than 200 people still inside, ranging from Christian clerics to Islamic militants, have run out of food.
Israeli snipers, tanks and troops have besieged the ancient basilica which marks the supposed site of Christ's birth for nearly three weeks, determined to arrest a group of wanted militants who sought refuge inside. So far, most of those inside the church have resisted intense psychological pressure including the use of stun grenades and loudspeakers broadcasting screeching sounds but the lack of food threatens to become the most serious obstacle to their continued defiance.
Another Palestinian, Taher Manasra, 20, who is now out of the church, has provided the first detailed account of the worsening conditions inside. He described how he was shot in the leg by an Israeli sniper while he was in a courtyard picking grass to eat. Now recovering in an Israeli hospital, Mr Manasra said that about 50 teenage Palestinian civilians the youngest of them aged 14 are desperate to escape the siege, but are afraid to go outside. "We talked with each other and said the next day we would go home tomorrow it will end," he said.
Mr Manasra said he and several dozen others, mostly high school students, had been spending their days sitting inside a grotto marking the site of Christ's manger. Priests would bring each of them water and a piece of chocolate cake every day. There was no other food.
He said the youths, along with a number of armed Palestinians milling around Manger Square, had ducked into the church under a barrage of bullets on 2 April as the Israeli army closed in. Also inside are Franciscan monks and nuns, and clerics from the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Church.
Mr Manasra said those inside were not being forced to stay, but the armed Palestinians had warned them that by venturing out they risked being shot by Israeli forces. Israel says it will arrest only those involved in attacks on Israelis and anyone else can go home.
On Saturday, Palestinians inside the church said Israeli soldiers propped ladders against a back wall and threw in plastic bottles containing leaflets urging surrender. "Think well and decide about your life," the leaflets said, according to men inside the church.
Israel said five Palestinians surrendered yesterday at the compound, but none of them were among the wanted militants. Palestinians inside the church said two of those who fled were 22-year-old civilians, two were Palestinian police officers and one was with Yasser Arafat's presidential guard.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry accused Mr Arafat, the Palestinian leader, of giving orders to those inside not to surrender. "They are trying to make a show here," she said.
© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd