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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Yasser Arafat Freed

Aired May 2, 2002 - 08:02   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: Up front this morning, Yasser Arafat is free. The Palestinian leader emerged from his compound today and was immediately surrounded by cheering Palestinians last night as the negotiations wrapped up. He told CNN in an exclusive interview, his first priority would be to end the stand-off in Bethlehem.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YASSER ARAFAT, PRESIDENT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY: What is important now is this big crime which had happened against this holy sacred place for the Muslims and for the Christians, the Nativity Church.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: And in Bethlehem just hours ago, a fire erupted at the Church of the Nativity during an intense gun battle. There are accusations that the church is booby-trapped and blame is flying from both sides as to who is responsible for that.

CNN's Walt Rodgers joins us now with more from Bethlehem -- good morning, Walt.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Paula.

I'm standing about 75 meters up from Manger Square. Behind me you can see an Israeli Merkeva tank, which has its turret trained on the church where over 120, perhaps as many as 200 Palestinians, still remain inside. The Israelis this morning said the church, they now have conclusive proof that the Palestinians inside the church have bombs planted in the church and that it is bobby-trapped, should there be any attempt by the Israelis to take the church.

The Israelis also said a short while ago that they have conclusive proof "for sure" that it was the Palestinians who deliberately set two fires in the Church of the Nativity last night about midnight. The Church of the Nativity, of course, is the traditional place in Bethlehem where Jesus was supposed to have been born.

Now, what the Israelis are saying is that the two fires which were ignited were in the Franciscan dormitory, also were ignited in the Orthodox tower of the church. That was somewhat away from the most precious part of the church, the knave, which is built over the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.

Having said that, the Israelis say there is no doubt these fires were deliberately started. They also say that Yasser Arafat's people inside the church started those fires, this according to the Israelis, so that when Arafat was freed from Ramallah, Arafat would then have that as a platform to attack the Israelis.

What the Israelis showed us by way of proof was videotape that showed that the fires inside both the Franciscan dormitory and the tower, the Orthodox tower, produced an outward explosion, that is to say, the glass from the fires exploded outward, suggesting the fires were ignited from the interior by the Palestinians inside because if the Palestinian claim was accurate, the Israelis said the videotape would have shown no glass on the outside, but glass on the inside.

Furthermore, I asked the Israelis, is it possible that one of the flares they fired might have ignited a fire on the roof? That appeared not to be the case at all. They denied that. And when you saw pictures of the roof, these are concrete roofs, stone roofs, and they would not have allowed a fire such as we saw last night.

The Israelis are pleading with Yasser Arafat. They say he's totally in control, he's the person and he is the only person who can end this stand-off here at the Church of the Nativity -- Paula.

ZAHN: Walt Rodgers, thank you so much for that report.

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