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One of Largest Groups of Palestinians Now Being Released From Church of Nativity

Aired April 30, 2002 - 08:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: I've got to quickly go to Bethlehem, where we are told one of the largest groups of Palestinians is now being released from the Church of the Nativity.

Mike Hanna, our correspondent, joins us from the ground at Bethlehem.

Mike, how many have been released so far?

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, at this stage, we have had one person we know has been inside the church for a long period of time, has come out, accompanied by one of the fathers, who has also been in the Church of the Nativity here in Manger Square for the month-long period that the siege has been going on. Within the next few minutes, we're expecting a large group to emerge from the church, possibly in ones and twos they'll come out.

At least 30 people, we are told, by Israeli officials, will be emerging from the church. This, as a result of ongoing negotiations in terms of resolving this standoff here, at the Church of the Nativity, occupied by a group of Palestinian gunmen, as well as Palestinian civilians, Palestinian police officers, on the beginning of the Israeli siege here in Bethlehem at the beginning of this month. They have been holed up in that church for a period of time, along with resident priests, and monks and nuns.

There have been negotiations all the time in terms of getting those out of the church who want to come out. Israel has maintained they are within this group, within the church, at least 20 people Israel identifies as wanted terrorists, who Israel says has been holding hostages within the church. This denied by some within the church, particularly by a number of the priests, who have said that people unwilling to come out of the church while the Israeli cordon remains around, and until the fate those of Israel has identified as terrorists, has been assured.

Israel wants to try these people on its list of some 20 within Israel, or it wants to put them in exile. The Palestinians are demanding that these 20 in particular be moved to the Gaza Strip and others passed under Palestinian Authority control for trial. So that's been the ongoing discussion. There has been successes in the negotiations, one of which we are about to see now, where groups are now emerging. Here we do have somebody coming out of the Church of the Nativity through a very tiny door, which is in the side of the church. This known as the door of humility. It is the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity, but very small, indeed, for anybody who has -- very difficult to get indeed. So it does appear as though people are coming out in ones. The man now coming out, raising his hands, showing he has no weapons, moving toward a group of Israeli soldiers. There is a place also in the Manger square, where we are told those coming out will be put on a bus and taken to an undisclosed location outside Bethlehem, where they will be questioned. If Israel is found not to be on their wanted list, they will be released.

Here we are seeing the fruits of the ongoing negotiations. Some people coming out of the church. We expect in the course of the next hour at least 30 people to emerge from the church. This will mean that some 80 people has come out of the church since the standoff began at the beginning of the month, Paula.

ZAHN: Are we to understand, with the exception of those 20 gunmen or terrorists, as the Israelis described them that everybody else is free to go from this point on?

HANNA: Well, that is the point Israelis have been making throughout these negotiations, saying it is well aware a large number of people are inside the church, Palestinians, civilians, Palestinians, police officers, who Israel has been saying repeatedly it knows fled into that sanctuary, and when the Israeli forces were moving into Bethlehem at the beginning of the massive military operation they launched at the beginning of the month. Israel has been stating repeatedly that anybody who wants to leave the church should be allowed to do so if they have not committed any crimes or acts of terror against Israeli civilians, then they will be allowed to go free.

So the situation is, is that Israeli's position has been that it wants that group of what it called hard-line militants, terrorists it describes them as, who, it says, are on its wanted list. It estimates that group to be about 20, some of them members of the Hamas military organization, others members of an armed wing of the Fatah movement. But Israel says these are the people it wants. It wants the others within the church, which also includes a large number of priests, and nuns and monks, who have insisted on staying inside the church until the situation is resolved.

Israel has said it wants them to get out of the situation without any further injury, without any further people being hurt in this ongoing crisis -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Mike Hanna, thanks for that update.

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