Tags: Bethlehem | Church | Standoff | Ends

Bethlehem Church Standoff Ends

Friday, 10 May 2002 12:00 AM

Early Friday, Israeli soldiers surrounded the church, where 123 Palestinians had sought refuge. The Palestinians began leaving the church at around 7 a.m. local time, passing through metal detectors to verify that they didn't carry weapons. By around 11 a.m. local time, all of the Palestinians had left the church, where they had stayed for 38 days.

The impasse was settled after Cyprus agreed to temporarily host 13 Palestinian militants who will be deported to Europe. Israel accuses the 13 of murder and attacks on civilians.

The Palestinians in the church also included some 80 non-combatants, who were freed. Another group of militants, 26 people, were deported to Gaza.

With the standoff ended, the next step is for the Israeli troops and tanks to pull out from the town, which they had seized on April 2 as part of a crackdown on militants called Operation Defensive Shield.

The evacuation of the Palestinians, scheduled for Thursday, was delayed a day because the 13 Palestinian militants wanted a third party to accompany them in the compound as protection against the Israelis. The Israelis objected, and everybody was kept there another day.

The breakthrough seemed to be the result of a concerted U.S. and European Union effort to resolve the impasse.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told reporters in Nicosia that his island state would temporarily accommodate the 13, who would then move to other countries.

The Cyprus News Agency quoted Kassoulides as saying Nicosia "has played a role, behind the scenes, in the effort to end the siege of the Church of Nativity." He said the agreement was reached Thursday night.

A British RAF plane had departed the British base at Akrotiri, in Cyprus, for Israel.

The aircraft left from Ben Gurion airport Friday afternoon, carrying the 13 militants to Larnaca, where they were to be handed over to the Cypriot authorities, who will guard them until their departure.

The Cypriot minister said the agreement was reached in deliberations among the European Union's envoy Javier Solana, whom Israel asked to help resolve the impasse, Spain's Foreign Minister Josep Pique, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the EU's Middle East peace envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos as well as U.S., British, Israeli and the Palestinian Authority officials.

Italy, Spain and several other EU countries have conditionally agreed to give asylum to the militants, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.

Israel radio quoted an unnamed official in Rome as saying that Spain, Austria, Greece, Luxembourg and Ireland might take the militants and that the matter should be resolved at a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday.

Luxembourg has denied any involvement. A Foreign Ministry statement said Luxembourg has received no request or information from any of the parties. Also, Luxembourg cannot allow entry to anyone involved in terrorism, the statement said.

Twenty-six other militants, whose alleged offenses were less severe than those of the 13, were taken by bus to the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel radio said they were heading for a celebration.

The third group comprises some 80 Palestinians who have not been involved in militant attacks but who fled to the church when Israel captured Bethlehem on April 2.

They were taken by bus to a nearby military camp in the area, identified, and released.

Some 10 foreigners who rushed into the church last week were still in the church. The Israeli government plans to deport them to their countries, an Israeli government official has said.

The peace activists, who are associated with a pro-Palestinian group, International Solidarity Movement, were refusing to leave the church, fearing arrest and deportation.

They insist that they won't depart from the church until the Israeli army leaves Bethlehem, International Solidarity Movement coordinator George Rishmawi told United Press International.

The 10 foreigners include four U.S. citizens, two Swedes, one Canadian, one Dane, one Briton and one Irish person, Rishmawi said. They had managed to enter the church about 10 days ago, carrying food and medicine.

Thirteen of their associates, who had also rushed to the church last week, were detained, some were deported. Rishmawi said nine were still in custody. The Israelis say the group had entered a closed military zone.

The anticipated release of the Palestinians had raised their spirits.

"The mood of the militants is high," Mohamed Nasri, a Palestinian police officer who was to be taken to Gaza, had said Thursday.

"Ending the standoff in the church would not only help the people holed up in the church, it will end the curfew imposed on 140,000 people in Bethlehem," Jihad Ja'ara, one of the militants scheduled to be expelled, said Thursday.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Early Friday, Israeli soldiers surrounded the church, where 123 Palestinians had sought refuge. The Palestinians began leaving the church at around 7 a.m. local time, passing through metal detectors to verify that they didn't carry weapons. By around 11 a.m. local time, all...
Friday, 10 May 2002 12:00 AM
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