Greek ‘No’ to Bethlehem’s 13

Greece has been continuing its diplomatic efforts to help ease the violence in the Middle East but has not offered to provide asylum to 13 Palestinian suspected militants who are at the center of a five-week standoff in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Foreign Minister George Papandreou said yesterday. «We have said that we can help in facilitating transportation of any Palestinians wanting to go to a third country, but there is no issue regarding their coming to our country,» Papandreou said after a meeting with Prime Minister Costas Simitis. «We have not made this offer and it has not been requested of us,» he added. Papandreou visited Israel and the West Bank last month in an effort to help end the standoff in Bethlehem and the siege on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that was then under way. «We will remain active in the effort to solve this problem,» Papandreou said regarding the Church of the Nativity. In the last two days there appeared to be a potential solution to the siege, under a proposed agreement in which 26 Palestinians in the church would be sent to Gaza, most of the rest would be set free and 13 suspected militants would remain inside until a country could be found to take them. Western diplomats confirmed the details of the proposal. Italy, which had been designated to take the militants, balked on Tuesday at hosting the deportees, despite US and Vatican pressure. An Italian newspaper, quoting sources, said that Greece had been asked to offer asylum to the 13. Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Panayiotis Beglitis said on Tuesday night that Athens was not offering asylum. Papandreou said, «This has not been mentioned to us officially.» He added, «I want to stress that we will continue our contacts with Arab states and with other Middle East countries, continuing with the initiative that we have undertaken.» A little over two weeks ago, a Catholic missionary news agency reported from Rome, quoting Israeli diplomatic sources, that Greece would accept militants from Bethlehem. Athens denied this.