BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The Palestinian bell ringer at the church over the traditional site of Jesus' birth was shot and killed Thursday, the latest victim in a Palestinian-Israeli standoff at the ancient basilica.
Samir Ibrahim Salman, a 45-year-old Christian and dedicated worker who kept mainly to himself, died while walking to his job at the Church of the Nativity.
Inside the church, 240 armed Palestinians have been holed up since Tuesday, with Israeli troops closing in and calling on the gunmen to surrender and come out. No one has done so.
At dawn Thursday, Salman, who also cleaned the building, set out for work as he had virtually every day of his adult life. He had hoped to keep ringing the bells, even as the church became the center of the siege.
It was not clear who fired the shots. Salman was hit in the chest. He slumped into a street just a few steps from the church door. He died there.
"He was a simple guy. He never harmed any person," a relative, Anton Salman, said of Salman, who never married and lived alone. Both his parents had died.
"He never spoke to anyone, but if you asked for help, he would run to do it for you," said Anton Salman, who spoke by telephone from inside the besieged church.
Despite his shyness, Salman was well known by the Palestinian Christian community, which makes up about half of the city's population of about 30,000 people. Residents always knew by the tolling bells at the Church of the Nativity when a Mass was under way, when a couple was getting married, when someone died and was to be buried. Salman had a different chime for each one.
At the Church of the Nativity, the standoff continued.
Gunmen and others inside the church said Israeli troops blew open a back door leading into a small courtyard next to the ancient stone shrine and fired inside, wounding three people. The Israeli military denied the claim, saying soldiers did not make a move on the shrine.
Mazen Hassan, a Palestinian policeman in the church, said he and other armed men were close to the metal door when it was blown open and shots were fired, injuring the people. An Associated Press reporter speaking to Hassan by phone could hear the sound of heavy shooting in the background. Hassan said Palestinians were not returning fire.
However, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman, denied soldiers moved into the church compound. Other military officials said there was shooting in nearby Manger Square, and that troops were pursuing gunmen.
The Israeli military prevented reporters from reaching the church to independently assess the rival claims.
Rafowicz said Israel has been offering safe passage out of the church for anyone wishing it, and that Palestinian officials holed up inside "are preventing the people from leaving."
The standoff at the church began Tuesday, when the fighters, who had been engaged in heavy gunbattles with advancing Israeli troops for hours, dashed a few dangerous steps from the Palace Hotel to the Church of the Nativity.
An army video released Thursday showed the gunmen running a dozen at a time from the nearby hotel, their heavy footfalls splashing puddles in the cobblestone path under a slashing rain. "One at a time," shouted one of the men. Wearing military vests and boots and carrying rifles, they ran as another turned and provided cover, wildly firing an assault rifle.
Inside the dark, cold church, nuns and priests, among about 60 members of the clergy there, have attended to 10 wounded gunmen and tried to come up with blankets. Two of the wounded need immediate medical care, said Father Ibrahim Faltas.
The bells rang out Thursday afternoon. This time, though, it wasn't Salman tugging at their ropes.