Arafat Furious About Church Fire

Minutes after Israeli tanks left his compound on Thursday after holding him a virtual prisoner for a month, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lashed out at Israel and accused it of sparking a fire at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Pounding the table in front of him and shouting, Arafat called Israelis "terrorists" for allegedly causing a fire in the church, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Israel denied causing the fire, which was put out by Palestinians holed up inside the church.

"How could the world possibly be silent about this atrocious crime?" he said. "I don't care if this room I'm sitting in blows up. What concerns me is what is happening at the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven!"

The fire broke out during an exchange of fire between Palestinian gunmen in the church and Israeli soldiers encircling it. During the shooting, Israeli soldiers threw smoke bombs and fired flares into the air.

Palestinians in the church said the flares set the fire. Israel charged that militants inside the church set the fire deliberately.

Three people were slightly burned trying to put out the fire, which burned for about half an hour.

The clash at the church came as Palestinians were celebrating the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Arafat's compound. Israeli tanks and bulldozers crashed through its outer walls and surrounded the inner office building on March 29, at the beginning of a large-scale incursion into the West Bank that followed a series of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

After the last Israeli troops left the compound, crowds of happy Palestinians rushed in, chanting slogans in support of Arafat and the Palestinian struggle against the Israelis. Arafat agreed to talk to reporters briefly.

Seated at the end of a conference table, a white beard covering his face, Arafat expressed his fury at the Israelis because of the fire at the church in Bethlehem.

In the month since the Israeli siege began, he gave interviews to news media by cell phone, and received occasional visitors.

Israeli tanks and bulldozers did considerable damage to the office compound, which was littered with hulks of smashed cars and rubble from destroyed buildings.