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BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The overwhelming stench of urine was the first thing to hit visitors who entered the shrine in Bethlehem revered as the birthplace of Jesus.

The standoff between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army at the Church of the Nativity, which came to an end on Friday after nearly 40 days and nights of high drama, had left one of Christianity's holiest places in a shocking mess.

Garbage bags, lemon peels, gas canisters, petrol cans and electric hotplates were scattered throughout the church off Manger Square. A Reuters correspondent saw altars, the sacred focus of Christian worship, covered with food scraps.

"It's not a church any more, it's a place filled with beds and trash," said Sandy Shahin, a local teenager who rushed into the church minutes after the end of the siege on Friday.

"The smell is too bad. The floor is too bad. I'm filled with fear," Shahin, a Roman Catholic, said between sobs.

It seemed almost a small miracle that the Grotto of the Nativity, where a silver star installed by the Catholics in 1717 is set in white marble over the exact spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, was immaculate.

A Reuters correspondent saw dusty mattresses, flak jackets and helmets, left behind by the Palestinian militants holed up in the church and scattered across the floor.

Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations share the fourth-century shrine, where areas of worship appeared to have escaped major damage in the standoff that included exchanges of gunfire between Israeli troops and the gunmen.

But the second floor of the Franciscan order's parish building in the complex looked like a war zone. Walls were pockmarked by bullet holes and scarred by smoke stains.

"I couldn't imagine something like this," said Manal Deik, a local banker, standing next to a bullet-riddled church wall, which was also marked with graffiti scrawled in Arabic.

"We will repair it because the damage is not outside, it's inside and we can do something about that," said the 25-year-old Catholic.

Greek Orthodox priest Father Kariton, standing in the basilica near a pile of discarded gasmasks, added: "The most important things are okay, but the museum is a little damaged."

Soon after the militants left, priests from the often bickering denominations argued over whether to allow Israeli army bomb disposal experts in to make sure no explosives were left behind. The clergymen decided in favour of a sweep.

"We have found 40 explosive devices and five rifles hidden there and the IDF is dismantling them now," an army spokeswoman said.

Earlier, 13 men on Israel's most-wanted list left the church and were quickly flown on a British aircraft to Cyprus, the first stop in an exile abroad which will take them to third countries under a European Union-brokered deal.

Twenty-six others considered less serious offenders by Israel were expelled from the West Bank and taken to Gaza.

Some 200 people -- Palestinian militants, police, civilians, priests and nuns took refuge in the sanctuary to evade Israeli troops and tanks that swept into Bethlehem on April 2 in a West Bank offensive triggered by suicide bombings.

Outside the church on Friday, crowds of Palestinians cheered after Israeli armoured personnel carriers pulled out of Manger Square. Church bells rang and cries of "Allahu Akbar", or "God is Greater" rang out from the loudspeakers of mosques.

Some of the 85 civilians, who returned to normal life in Bethlehem after undergoing an Israeli security check in a nearby army compound, were overjoyed at the prospect of simply taking a shower and eating a full meal for the first time in weeks.

After hugging and kissing emotional relatives who greeted them at Beit Jala Hospital near Bethlehem, the men said they asked themselves difficult questions during the standoff -- such as when Israeli snipers would fire next or food would run out.

"The Israelis had this tower with a remote control electronic device that fired on us whenever we were exposed. When we went outside we had to run away from it," said Naji Abu Obeid, a 19-year-old Palestinian policeman.

"We each had a safe spot in the church where we would hide such as behind columns," added Obeid, who said he used his AK-47 assault rifle to defend himself and others.

Israel, which engaged in lengthy negotiations with the Vatican and other interested parties over the church, strenuously denied firing into the shrine and said it did all it could to avoid damaging the Church of the Nativity.

Two Palestinian men were killed by gunfire in the church compound last month and another was later wounded.

A lemon tree stood in the Franciscan compound, its branches bare after those who had been holed up inside the shrine ate its leaves.

The church is no stranger to conflict. Samaritans destroyed much of the original church during a revolt in 529. Christian Crusader and Muslim armies fought over it for many years.

The church was rebuilt during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in about 530 AD. Crusaders redecorated it and over the centuries it has been renovated and expanded with the addition of other chapels and monasteries around it.

- REUTERS

Feature: Middle East

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