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SLUG: 3-120 Ross Dunn Interview



APRIL 4, 2002

President Bush has increased the U-S role in trying to resolve the Mideast crisis. He is sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to push for negotiations. Today, a delegation from the European Union is in the Middle East to try to do the same thing. This, as Israeli forces are now in every major city of the Palestinian West Bank. And in Bethlehem, a dramatic stand-off between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen continues in and around the ancient Church of the Nativity. Reporter Ross Dunn was in Bethlehem and spoke with VOA's Russ Woodgates and Barbara Klein.

MR. DUNN: I'm down below a hill, with Manger Square above me. What I can tell you I can see is tanks going in there. The estimate of the number of people inside, however, was given by an Italian journalist who was there and he witnessed the dramatic events, when the gunmen shot their way in. That's certainly what happened, because we have this eyewitness account from a group of Italian journalists. There is no doubt that they shot their way in.

What is not clear today, however, is whether the Israeli troops have tried to make any effort to breach the church. The Israeli Army denies this, but there are reports in Bethlehem -- certainly the Palestinian residents believe~--~that the Israeli troops are trying to do exactly that. But the Israeli Army says there is no order to storm the church at this stage.

MR. WOODGATES: Can you give us any clarification as to the status of some of the people inside the Church of the Nativity? We know there are some Palestinian gunmen who have supposedly been seeking refuge. Are there any hostages, as such?

MR. DUNN: This is not clear to me. What I do know is that there are priests and nuns inside, and they are continuing to supply food to the Palestinian gunmen. When people at the site asked them why they did this, they said they are also God's children and they would not differentiate between them and themselves, and they needed to be fed.

MR. WOODGATES: There was a report today that one of the priests inside the church had notified the Vatican that the food is running out. Are the Israelis permitting any food or water to be brought to the church?

MR. DUNN: This I don't know. But there is food available apparently because the priests and nuns are able to give it to them. And as I listen -- I'm sure you can't hear because it's in the distance -- there is a lot of machinegun fire, there is a lot of fighting -- perhaps not directly outside the church but all around the center -- there is machinegun fire and there are sporadic explosions. And for a moment there I couldn't hear you because of the gunfire.

MS. KLEIN: Ross, it's my understanding that it's quite a feat that you got to Bethlehem in the first place, that Israel is actually forbidding journalists from being near the Church of the Nativity. How are you able to cover what's going on?

MR. DUNN: Well, this is true, because I'm not able to cover directly those events, but I think it was an achievement even to get into Bethlehem. I had to walk along, basically, a path alongside a checkpoint and cross in front of it across a main highway, and then I had to walk -- I was actually with a woman resident for some time, and she guided me down roads. And what is most frightening I think is the silence between the gunfire, because nobody is sure what is going to happen next. And it does have a feeling, in many of the streets, of a ghost town, because many people are afraid to get out.

And if I can give you a picture of the conflict from this vantage point, it's clear, of course, that in the weeks leading up to this military incursion that the Israelis were quite justifiably terrified of terror, but equally the Palestinian residents are living in utmost dread because of this incursion. Everybody is in fear. Even the soldiers who stopped me on the way made me put my bag down to find out who I was, but then they very kindly gave me a lift, at least until I was inside somebody's house.

(End of interview.)

Reporter Ross Dunn in Bethlehem spoke with VOA's Russ Woodgates and Barbara Klein.

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