By Beatriz Lecumberri
BETHLEHEM, West Bank, (AFP) - An Armenian priest and two monks made a dramatic escape Tuesday from Bethlehem's besieged Church of the Nativity where occupants are said to have run out of food and water, the Armenian church said.
Neither the church nor the Israeli army, which earlier had said all three had been Armenian priests, gave many details of the escape.
The three men had their first full meal in weeks in Bethlehem, and were then brought to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalm for medical treatment, church officials said in a statement. The three reportedly escaped after holding up a placard in the church compound reading "Please Help," a day after a fierce gun battle between Israeli soldiers and dozens of suspected Palestinian militants holed up inside.
"The three Armenian priests managed to escape the gunmen," said Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Olivier Rafowicz, saying the incident occurred at 10:30 am (0730 GMT).
The men described the situation inside the church, built on the site where according to Christian tradition the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, as "terrible," he said. Many of those holed up since April 3 wanted to escape but were being held hostage by the Palestinian militants, he said.
"It's a terrible situation. Relations between the priests and the gunmen are very tough, and many want to be freed," he alleged.
The Armenian church statement made no mention of the conditions inside the church, and officials were unavailable for comment.
Updating the Israeli estimates of who is actually in the church complex, Rafowicz said there are some 230 armed Palestinians, of whom 35-40 are considered "senior terrorists." The army had earlier said most of the people inside were civilians. With them are up to 30 religious and 50 Palestinian teenagers, plus two 10-year-old boys, Rafowicz said.
The Armenians left the church only minutes before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators launched the first direct talks aimed at ending the Bethlehem stalemate, which has been closely followed by religious leaders world-wide.