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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Standoff at Nativity May Come to an End

Aired May 5, 2002 - 18:02   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.
CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to begin now with the Breaking News that's coming out of the Middle East at this hour where the 34-day standoff at one of Christianity's Holiest places may be coming to an end, and CNN's Matthew Chance is near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. He joins us now by phone. Matthew, what's the latest?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Catherine, that's right there's a lot of anticipation here outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a lot of media, a lot of journalists have gathered to their usual position overlooking the compound of the church. I can tell you that right in front of that there's a tank, an Israeli tank with its gun facing the Door of Humility, which is the main entrance to the main basilica of that church, which has been under siege now for about five weeks or so.

Let me bring you up to date on this latest information we're getting to us. There are reports, unconfirmed I have to stress at this stage, that some deal has been done between the Israelis and the Palestinians to bring to an end this standoff.

Israel Radio, which is the national radio in Israel obviously, is reporting that. It's not confirmed at this stage. In fact, we've spoken to the Israeli army, the IDF as they call it, the Israeli Defense Forces, and they say they are not aware that any deal has been done as yet, although they say the chances are much better than they were previously.

I've also had a conversation within the last few minutes to the mayor of Bethlehem who's been very close to these negotiations between the Israeli and the Palestinian sides here, and he says he believes there is a big chance that some agreement will be reached, although - by the end of today even, by the end of tonight here, although he stressed again that no such deal had yet been reached.

So it's a bit of a confusing picture, I'm afraid that I have to paint for you. But obviously we're on standby here and we'll bring you any developments as soon as they trickle through to us, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: And, Matthew, have you seen increased activity there in the last hour since this report came out of Israeli Radio?

CHANCE: I wouldn't describe it as increased activity. There's been a bit of movement of Israeli military equipment around the church. I don't know whether that amounts though to the beginnings of a withdrawal. We have heard reports that the Palestinian police force has been placed on standby in preparation for a possible move to evacuate the church. Again though, these are all very unconfirmed reports at this stage, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: And, Matthew, I know the Associated Press quoting Israeli Radio is very specific about what they say this settlement is, saying that it was a U.S. proposal. Do you have any word on that? We're getting information that five or six of the Palestinian militants would be deported to Italy, some would be released into the Gaza Strip. What are you hearing?

CHANCE: Yes, the details obviously are still very sketchy, Catherine, but certainly we're hearing that as well that the terms of this deal may involve something like 30 Palestinian militants holed up inside the church being placed under guard presumable in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

Another five or six said to be hardcore, dangerous Palestinian militant fighters, Israel had wanted either handed into its custody or placed into exile, would indeed be put into exile, and you're right, the country that is being mentioned in these reports is Italy in this instance.

All this, of course, follows a few days of intensive negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians brokered and with involvement as well from U.S. diplomats and also British diplomats as well to try to bring to an end this standoff.

A list has been placed in the hands of both the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership, Yasser Arafat in particular, a list of 123 names of people inside the church. That's not counting the members of the clergy inside the church and the members of the international peace activity groups that have infiltrated the compound over recent weeks, 123 Palestinians. Israel says about 42 of those people are known militants to them. They want them either handed over or put into exile. So this is the deal that seems to be coming through right now, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: All right, Matthew Chance, CNN's Matthew Chance working on confirming a report by Israeli Radio that the month-long standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem could be coming to an end. Matthew will continue to work on that. We hope to get a live report later on from him on that.

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