Refuge for Palestinians

Thirteen Palestinian militants, the focus of an Israeli military siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem since April 2, were to leave for Cyprus in a deal reached late last night between Israel, the European Union, the United States, the Palestinians and Greece. An Italian Foreign Ministry official said that under the proposed deal, Italy and Spain would take some of the militants while Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, Ireland and perhaps even Canada might take the rest. The siege began April 2 when more than 200 Palestinians fled into the church, which marks the birthplace of Jesus, ahead of invading Israeli forces. By yesterday, 123 were still inside and Israel was demanding that 13 go into exile. A meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday will determine details regarding where the 13 will go and how they will be split up. They will stay in a hotel on Cyprus until then. «The Cyprus government has agreed to keep for a few days the 13 Palestinians in transit, whose expulsion the government of Israel has demanded,» Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides told a hastily summoned, late-night news conference in Nicosia. He said a British military aircraft would fly to Tel Aviv from the British air base at Akrotiri in Cyprus, collect the militants and land on its return at Larnaca airport. He did not say when he expected the militants to leave Bethlehem. «We hope this will happen as soon as possible,» he said, adding there were still some details to be sorted out. Separately, a western European diplomat told Reuters various elements of a deal to end the standoff had been finalized and it could be implemented «in the next few hours,» with various European countries involved in taking in Palestinians. Cassoulides said that Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, as representative of the European Union presidency, had given an assurance that «EU states will take charge of the 13 persons for the purpose of a definite destination early next week.» The Spanish presidency will issue a statement about the final destination and the Cypriot role, Cassoulides said. Cyprus «is happy to have played a role behind the scenes in an effort to end the siege of the Church of the Nativity,» Cassoulides said. (Kathimerini, Reuters, AP)