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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strike Kills 2 Militants, Bethlehem Talks Begin

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to meet to try to end a lengthy standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Tuesday, and an overnight Israeli missile strike killed two militants.

Hours after the helicopter missile attack on a car in the West Bank city of Hebron, hooded gunmen dragged three men suspected of collaborating with Israel to the scene and shot them dead. Crowds of Palestinians gathered to view the bodies.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said Israeli and Palestinian officials were to meet Wednesday morning for the first direct talks since the church standoff began three weeks ago.

Dozens of armed Palestinians took refuge in the sanctuary in the town of Jesus' birth April 2 after Israeli troops reoccupied Bethlehem as part of a West Bank offensive unleashed after suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.

Israel has said it will keep up its siege of the church until wanted militants inside surrender to face trial in Israel or exile. Palestinians have previously rejected these terms.

The Israeli army confirmed that talks were planned.

About 200 clerics, church workers and Palestinian officials and police have been stranded inside the church, one of Christianity's holiest sites, in worsening conditions.

Israel's helicopter missile strike in Hebron was the first such attack since troops and tanks pulled out of most West Bank cities to positions encircling them on Sunday.

The attack on a car killed Marwan Zuloum, local commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction and responsible for deadly assaults on Israelis. Zuloum's bodyguard also died.

Crowds took to the streets of Hebron screaming for revenge after the men's charred bodies were pulled from the burning wreckage of their vehicle early Tuesday. Palestinian officials accused Israel of carrying out an assassination. Previous killings of high-ranking militants have often led to deadly suicide attacks on Israelis.

The Israeli army confirmed it had fired missiles in Hebron but would not say what the target was.

The killing of suspected collaborators in Hebron followed similar shootings of three men in Ramallah on Monday, one of whom died of his wounds. Palestinians say their police and security services were destroyed in Israel's offensive.

Troops were still besieging Arafat's compound in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. U.S.-led efforts to defuse the standoffs without violence have made little headway.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East William Burns was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later Tuesday, a day after the envoy held what Palestinians called unproductive talks with Arafat in his ruined headquarters.

An Israeli political source said Sharon would consult foreign and defense ministry officials before deciding whether to accept a UN-appointed committee mandated to discover what happened during Israel's assault on the Jenin refugee camp.

In response to world outcry over the havoc wrought in the camp, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan named a fact-finding team led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

Members of the UN fact-finding mission intend to gather in Geneva on Wednesday, and Ahtisaari said he hoped it would leave for the region by the end of the week.

Israel says it has nothing to hide in the Jenin camp, scene of the fiercest fighting in the West Bank campaign.

Palestinian hospital officials say 45 bodies have been recovered so far in Jenin and more remain under the rubble.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres invited the European Union on Tuesday to send a mission to Israel and said it could visit Arafat if it wished, an EU diplomat said.

In the Gaza Strip, witnesses said 10 Israeli tanks and a bulldozer pushed into the Palestinian-ruled area of al-Qarara near the Jewish settlements of Gush Katif on Tuesday.

They said the bulldozer was razing trees and clearing land in the area. The army had no immediate comment.