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Israeli tanks roll across West Bank

U.S. State Department security officers evacuate foreign nationals Wednesday from the Star Hotel in Bethlehem.  

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- Hundreds of Israeli tanks and military vehicles rolled into Nablus late Wednesday, exchanging fire with Palestinians as helicopter gunships fired above the largest city in the West Bank.

A 24-hour curfew was imposed on the city, as is the case in other West Bank towns where the Israeli army is operating what it calls an antiterrorist sweep.

The Israeli military operations in the West Bank began during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, the first of which occurred at the beginning of Passover a week ago at a hotel in Netanya.

Nineteen Palestinians were killed in the operation Wednesday, including a girl whose Nablus home was struck by a tank shell, hospital sources said.

More than 400 tanks, armored vehicles and bulldozers entered Nablus late in the day and heavy exchanges of gunfire were reported throughout the city, Palestinian sources said.

"They started their attack from different sectors of Nablus, and now there is resistance from all of these sectors from the fighters inside the city," said Anan Quadri, a spokeswoman for the Nablus governor's office. "All of the hospitals are preparing themselves for hundreds of casualties."

Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers also rumbled into Tulkarem and its nearby villages late Wednesday, striking at key Palestinian buildings and rounding up suspected militants, Palestinian sources said.

Israel deepens military campaign in West Bank, rolling tanks into the town of Jenin and the village of Salfit.  
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About 100 to 150 Palestinian men, women and children seek haven at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.  
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The Israel Defense Forces would say only that operations were under way in both towns.

House-to-house searches

Earlier Wednesday, Israel sent tanks into the town of Jenin and the village of Salfit, Israeli military sources said.

An IDF spokesman said soldiers took up positions in Jenin and were conducting house-to-house searches in Salfit, arresting suspected Palestinian militants and collecting weapons.

Palestinian security sources said five people were killed in Jenin, four civilians and a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military arm of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Elsewhere Wednesday, Hezbollah guerrillas clashed with Israeli troops for the second consecutive day along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Clashes resumed around Shebaa Farms at the foot of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where guerrillas fired mortars at Israeli army positions and the army responded with fighter-bombers and artillery, an IDF spokesman said.

Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon almost two years ago and since that time tensions along the border have waxed and waned.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has said his country has no intention of opening a war front along its border with Israel, but the latest violence in that area came as Syria announced it would re-deploy a substantial number of its forces inside Lebanon. (Full story)

Americans, Britons evacuated

Some of the fiercest fighting was in Bethlehem, where Palestinian sources said six Palestinians were killed in gunbattles.

Israeli tanks surrounded the Church of Nativity, a monument to the birth of Jesus, as a standoff continued with as many as 200 Palestinians, mostly men, remained holed up inside. (Bethlehem map)

"They are from the Palestinian police and ... mostly from the Palestinian Authority police, who ran away to the Church of the Nativity to implore protection inside the church after [a nearby mosque] was bombed and shot at by Israeli tanks and soldiers," said Anton Salman, a member of the Antonius Society, a humanitarian group in Bethlehem.

"The situation is very bad. It's very bad from all forms," Salman told CNN by phone Wednesday.

"The food that is in the convent in the church is going very, very quickly. ... Second, there are 10 injured people who are inside the church. One of them has very a serious injury and he ... has been bleeding since yesterday. They gave him first aid, but that's not enough," he said. (Full story)

Col. Miri Eisine of the Israeli military told CNN Wednesday there were "armed terrorists" in the church. She said Palestinian statements that Israelis were keeping them inside were untrue; the IDF, she said, wants them to put down their arms and let everyone inside come out. (Full interview)

Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said the Palestinian security officers surrendered their weapons before entering and were now under the protection of the church.

The Vatican called calls for the parties involved in the conflict to respect holy sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Israeli forces stopped Bishop Riyah of the Anglican Church in Bethlehem at a checkpoint.

"They kept telling us that Bethlehem now is a military zone, we are not allowed to go in. We offered our services to mediate something to do with people with arms in the Church of the Nativity ... and they say, 'Sorry you cannot go in.'"

Bethlehem was a "ghost town" Wednesday with "nobody on the streets," CNN's Ben Wedeman reported. (Full story)

Hospital sources in Bethlehem said dead people lay in the street, but ambulances were not able to get to dead and wounded people because of the security situation.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said the Red Cross has not been able to remove the wounded or retrieve the bodies of the dead.

"The situation is very bad in the city now," Nasser said.

U.S. State Department security agents helped evacuate Americans, Britons and at least one Japanese woman from a hotel aboard armored personnel carriers sent by the consulates of several countries, according to Sean Riordan, an activist with the Independent Media Group.

The evacuees, all members of the pro-Palestinian group International Solidarity Movement, asked to be rescued from the escalating violence.

The IDF said Wednesday three Israeli soldiers suffered injuries in the Bethlehem violence -- two were hit by gunfire and the third had acid thrown on him.

At least seven Palestinians, including four members of Al Aqsa, were killed in Bethlehem during fighting Tuesday, Palestinian security sources said.

Arafat remained under siege and isolated in his Ramallah compound, surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers. His aides said food was running low and electricity was on the blink. Arafat rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's threat to send him into exile. (Map of Arafat's compound.)

"We shall steadfast on our soil until we triumph or martyr," he told the Palestine News Agency.

The situation in Ramallah was extremely tense, with gunbattles reported throughout the city, and CNN crews reporting they took fire at times. Water was cut off for most of the city.

"We can't even flush the toilets," one CNN producer said.




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