By DAVID ROHDE
ETHLEHEM, West Bank, April 10 – An Armenian monk was seriously wounded this morning and Palestinians say two men were killed this afternoon inside the complex of buildings that make up the Church of the Nativity, the Christian holy site where about 200 Palestinian gunmen are in a taut standoff with the Israeli Army. The shootings appeared to have occurred during attempts to get aid into the compound, where Palestinians say they have run out of food after a week of siege.
Palestinians say an Israeli sniper shot the monk, identified by The Associated Press as Armin Sinanian, 22, as he went to retrieve food and medicine delivered by Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces at first accused Palestinians of gunning him down, but late tonight Israeli military officials said in a statement that they were investigating who had actually fired the shot. The monk, who was wearing civilian clothes at the time of the shooting, was in serious condition tonight at a Jerusalem hospital.
The shooting came as Israeli forces appeared to ratchet up the psychological pressure on the surrounded Palestinians, who fled into the church last week when Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem. Israelis contend that some of the men are suspected terrorists.
The standoff has evolved into a major test of wills and a propaganda war, with Palestinians apparently hoping that Israeli forces will withdraw before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrives in Israel on Thursday night.
The adversaries regularly accuse each other of damaging the church, which Christians believe is built on the site of Jesus’ birth. Its facade has been raked by gunfire, and a fire damaged an adjacent building on Monday.
Muhammad al-Madani, the governor of Bethlehem, who was hiding in the church, said in a telephone interview today that an Israeli sniper shot the monk when he looked out a convent window this morning. Governor Madani also accused Israeli snipers of killing two Palestinian men when they tried to sneak out of the church to retrieve food and medicine this afternoon. “They left at 2:30 and we haven’t heard from them since,” Mr. Madani said. “We assume they are dead.”
Israeli military officials said that they were unaware of any other shootings at the site today. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said 40 priests, monks and nuns also inside the compound are being held hostage by the Palestinians. Church and Palestinian officials say the priests and nuns are there of their own free will. The church, they say, will shelter any fighter, Palestinian or Israeli, who lays down his arms.
Israeli forces conducted a series of maneuvers today apparently meant to keep the Palestinians on edge. At 5 a.m., soldiers fired a half-dozen explosive devices high into the air above Manger Square that sent cacophonous explosions echoing across this biblical hilltop city.
At noon, a small blimp was launched over the Manger Square compound. The white dirigible, which appeared to have a surveillance camera attached to it, hovered several hundred feet above the square on a tether line. Then, at dusk, a flare was fired over the compound and another explosive was set off. Governor Madani said tonight that the Palestinians inside the church heard heavy equipment moving in the square. He said they feared an attack and were now carrying their weapons. Conditions inside the compound were deteriorating, he said, but morale was holding firm.