Jericho man braves rain to win inaugural Bethlehem marathon

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Hundreds of athletes on Sunday braved freezing rain to take part in Bethlehem's first-ever marathon, which was won by a Palestinian runner from the West Bank oasis town of Jericho.

Some 500 runners, half Palestinians and half foreigners, took part in the different legs of the race, organisers said, which began as the West Bank town was buffeted by cold winds and an unseasonal downpour.

The full marathon was won by Mr Abdel Nasser Awajme, a Palestinian from Jericho, an AFP correspondent at the scene said. His racing time was to be officially announced at a press conference during the afternoon.

Around 100 competitors took part in the full 42.2km race, while another 150 joined the half-marathon, organisers told AFP. Some 250 joined either the 10km or 5km races.

Another 26 runners from Gaza were denied permission by Israel to travel to Bethlehem to join the race.

Sunday's race, which is called the "Right to Movement Palestine Marathon" and is the brainchild of two Danish women athletes, takes runners on a 13km tour of this hilly southern West Bank town which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus.

Marathon runners had to do two laps of the course after organisers were not able to find an uninterrupted 42km stretch within Area A, the small portion of the Israeli-occupied West Bank which is under full Palestinian control.

Ms Etidal Abdelghani, deputy director-general of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, which co-sponsored the event, said the aim of the race - the first West Bank marathon to conform to international standards - was to demonstrate just that.

"This is a message that we have the right to move and to have sports events in Palestine without any obstacles," she said.

Among the international participants was Ms Komar Nawaz, a 34-year-old woman from London, who ran the 10km race.

"We were supposed to do the Gaza one and then it got cancelled, but we were already training so we looked for something else and this one was perfect," she told AFP.

The UN's annual Gaza marathon, set for April 10, was cancelled at the last minute after the Islamist Hamas authorities who govern the enclave said they would not let women and men run together.

"We do a lot of work for Palestine back in the UK and we have got different trips to places across the West Bank this week," added Ms Nawaz.