Exiles due tomorrow?

MYCONOS (AP) – A Spanish plane will pick up 12 of the 13 Palestinian militants exiled by Israel after a siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and distribute them among six European Union countries, Spain’s foreign minister said yesterday. «[Today], a Spanish plane will be in Cyprus and it will distribute the people to the various countries,» Josep Pique said, speaking on the sidelines of a Mediterranean foreign ministers’ meeting on the Cycladic island of Myconos. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said the plane would leave Cyprus tomorrow, dropping off two of the Palestinians in Athens on the way to Madrid. «We expect them in Athens on Wednesday,» Papandreou said. One Palestinian is to remain in Cyprus. Spain and Italy are expected to take three each, two are to go to Ireland, while Belgium and Portugal are expected to host one each. The plane is likely to also land in Rome on the way to Madrid, a Greek Foreign Ministry official said. It was not immediately clear whether it would also distribute the remaining Palestinians to the other countries, or whether they would first be taken to Spain. Cyprus had been hosting the men until the EU could work out the details of how to take them in. Although not an EU member, Cyprus hopes to join the 15-nation bloc soon. «Cyprus’s action will strengthen its course toward Europe,» Papandreou said. [But until late last night, it was unclear whether Cyprus would allow the 13th Palestinian to stay. Earlier in the day, government spokesman Michalis Papapetrou had insisted that the man’s final destination had not been settled. On Sunday, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said a deal had been struck providing for the same distribution of exiles agreed on yesterday, but several countries – including Greece and Cyprus – denied that later.] The six EU countries agreed last week to host the Palestinians in an effort to defuse tensions in the Middle East and end the five-and-a-half-week standoff at one of Christianity’s holiest sites. «It was our effort to help reduce Middle East tension and avoid any unpredictable consequences,» Papandreou said. Israel considers the 13 as the most dangerous of those who had holed up inside the Church of the Nativity. Some 200 Palestinians, including several dozen gunmen, ran into the church on April 2 to flee advancing Israeli troops.