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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Nine Palestinian Children Released from Church of Nativity

Aired April 25, 2002 - 09:15   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: On to the Middle East now and news out of Bethlehem. CNN has learned that nine Palestinian children have been released from the Church of the Nativity. The bodies of two other Palestinians also were removed and it is expected that more children could be released today.

Meanwhile a U.N. mission to inspect the ruins of Jenin is in Geneva at this hour getting ready to head to Jenin this weekend. And the "New York Times" is reporting today that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has actually softened his stance about the makeup of the mission. He very much wants some sort of military expert there, but as you know, Palestinians continue to claim the refugee camp was the scene of massacre. But in Congressional testimony yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he has seen no proof of any atrocities by Israel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: I can't tell you what might be there but right now I see no evidence of mass graves and I see no evidence of -- of - I've seen no evidence that would suggest a massacre took place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Joining us now to discuss the U.N. mission to Jenin, from Washington, Israeli Embassy Spokesperson Mark Regev. Good of you to join us. Thanks for being with us.

MARK REGEV, ISRAEL EMBASSY SPOKESPERSON: Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: Good morning. First of all, is it true that the prime minister of Israel now will accept the makeup of the team that Kofi Annan has presented?

REGEV: Paula, I think our position has been very consistent. We have said from the beginning that Israel has nothing to hide. That we are sure that our soldiers in the fighting in the Jenin area are conducting themselves in the professional moral way. It was difficult fighting. It was house to house fighting in built up urban area. It was very complex. We took two losses; some two dozen of our soldiers were killed. The houses were booby-trapped. There was difficult fighting with the terrorists using the civilian population as human shield. But we are - we say to the fact-finding committee, please come.

What we don't want is some sort of inquisitions. We want a fair, open-minded fact-finding team.

ZAHN: All right. But are you going to get it with this team because it was widely reported that the Israelis had expressed a number of objections to the makeup of this team. Are you going to go with the team that Kofi Annan originally came up with or are you still demanding that some military expert be added to the team?

REGEV: I expect us to cooperate fully with the team. And what we're expressing, as we did yesterday and we're continuing to negotiate with the U.N. today, to make sure the team has though experts, those forensic experts, those military experts, those counter-terrorism experts that can make the team do its job professionally and effectively. That's what we want. We want a team that will find the truth, that will get rid of all this trusty propaganda, the one's hearing (ph) from the Arab side, that will show that Israel was conducting a professional military operation and that a maximum effort was made, Paula, not to have civilian casualty.

You know it's very easy to drop bombs from the air or to shell from afar. We went in there house to house to seek out the terrorist. We did it risking our own soldiers and we did it in a way that I think our country can be proud of.

ZAHN: But can you clear up some of the confusion for us this morning because everything I read today would suggests that the head of U.N. Kofi Annan says, hey look, I picked the team. It is this team and essentially saying the teams not going to change. And yet you're telling me that there are seem to be some sort of discussions going on about the makeup of this team.

REGEV: That is correct. We're talking about the parameters of its - of the team's scope of reference. We're talking about the people on the team. I think we're accepting what the secretary general is saying and we're building upon that to make sure we've got a professional team. After all, you've got a number of human right experts on the team, people from the International Committee of the Red Cross but ultimately, if you're going to look at situations of combat and to study a situation where a battle has taken place, you need military experts. You need counter-terrorism expert to assist the staff that's on the team.

ZAHN: Well let me ask you about this comment the Israeli defense minister said yesterday where he suggested that this team was going to "entrap Israel with this facts-finding team". That would imply that you still don't think this make up of the team is going to give you a fair shake.

REGEV: Well if you listen to a lot of people in the United Nations and you have to remember, Paula, that historically the United Nations hasn't necessarily been objective about the Middle East conflict. It's unfortunately been very one-sided. That there was a fear in Israel that we are going to have some sort of kangaroo court, that you know someone is going to come in and just automatically justify the Palestinian claims of massacre, which we know are not true. So the team, we understand from Kofi Annan, will be objective, will be scientific, will do it's job professionally and if that is the situation, Israel has no problem with that whatsoever.

ZAHN: Let's talk about what you understand to be the latest going on in Bethlehem right now. CNN is confirming that it is believed that at least nine Palestinian children were released from the Church of the Nativity, two Palestinian bodies carried out. Do you know anything about the circumstances of these children who were taken out of the church today?

REGEV: Paula, I only say the following. That we want the standoff at Bethlehem to finish as soon as possible, expeditiously. We've been going through third parties, the Vatican, the Americans, the European to see if we can get solved as quickly as possible. You've had an unfortunate situation where gunmen from terrorist groups like Tanzen (ph), Al Aqsa Brigades and Hamas have forcibly taken over the church. They're holding civilians inside hostage. They're holding the clerics inside hostage. We can storm the building. We won't storm the building because it is a Christian holy site. We want this standoff to finish as soon as possible. And we want the church to be vacated of any military personnel.

ZAHN: An Israeli army spokesperson said he's cautiously optimistic that this could end very soon. When do you think it will end?

REGEV: It could have ended yesterday. There's a deal on the table worked by third parties whereby the - everyone can leave. The terrorists who have blood on their hands, terrorists who have been involved in suicide bombing and other murderous operations can either stand trial in Israel or they can leave the country. That deal I think is fair deal. It's compromised by my government and it's a pitty that they haven't picked up that bowl yet.

ZAHN: All right. We are going to leave it there this morning. Mark Regev, Israeli Embassy Spokesperson, thank you very much for your time this morning.

REGEV: My pleasure, Paula.

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