Explosions near Church of Nativity

 Heavy gunfire was reported near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, late yesterday afternoon. A BBC reporter at the scene, said she saw bullets, flares and what looked like smoke bombs fired near the building. The church bells began ringing when the explosions started. Fr Ibrahim Faltas, Franciscan rector of the Nativity complex, told the Missionary news service: "We heard shooting and explosions for around half an hour, but we do not actually know what happened". We are closed in the monastery" he said, "and cannot therefore say what is happening outside, though the situation has returned to calm". Fr. Ibrahim said no one in the building was hurt. The BBC said Israeli troops had tried but failed to storm the building. The Israeli army confirmed that a military operation had taken place, but said its troops had neither fired at the church nor tried to make an entry. As the siege goes into its third week the Israelis are keeping up the psychological pressure on those holed up inside the church, bombarding it with ear-splitting, shrieking noises, the sounds of dogs barking, cocks crowing and women screaming in an attempt to disorientate those inside. They have also been flying flares and sending fireworks over the church. The Israeli army says there are at least 30 militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement inside the church.

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