NEWS

The Bethlehem 13 are looking forward to having a normal life in Europe

LARNACA – A Palestinian militant Israel considers the most dangerous of the 13 it expelled under the deal ending the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem said yesterday he’s looking forward to a new life and reunion with his family in an undisclosed European country. «I shall live wherever I go within the law and the system of that country,» said Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence chief in Bethlehem at the time of Israel’s offensive into the West Bank in April. He spoke to The Associated Press from the balcony of a hotel where the 13 Palestinians have been staying in the southern Cypriot resort of Larnaca. Yesterday was expected to be the last full day on this Mediterranean holiday island for 12 of the 13 before they move on to six European Union nations that have agreed to take them. A Spanish military aircraft landed in Cyprus yesterday to pick up the 12, following an announcement by Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Pique Monday night. The men were expected to leave the island today, according to Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou. The two were speaking on the sidelines of a Mediterranean foreign ministers’ meeting on the Greek island of Myconos. From Cyprus, the Spanish military plane will stop in Athens and Rome before returning to Madrid, according to Pique, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency. Spain and Italy have agreed to take three each, Greece and Ireland two each and Portugal and Belgium one apiece. The 13th Palestinian, whose identity has yet to be formally announced, is expected to stay «temporarily» on in Cyprus until a host nation from the 15 EU members is found for him, according to EU Mideast envoy Miguel Moratinos and Palestinian representative in Cyprus Samir Abu Ghazaleh. Most of the 13, who arrived in Cyprus on May 10, are members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militant militia linked to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. They include three members of Hamas, a militant Islamic group. Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade are responsible for most of about 60 suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis since the start of Palestinian-Israeli violence in September 2000. Daoud, 41, is the most senior of the 13, a group regarded by Israel as terrorists. Israel says it reserves the right to demand their extradition. Since their arrival in Cyprus, which is expected to join the EU by January 2004, the militants been confined to the three-star seaside Flamingo Beach Hotel in Larnaca, where they occupy the top of the hotel’s four floors and are under round-the-clock protection by the island’s anti-terrorism police squad known by the Greek acronym MAAD. The militants were among 200 Palestinians, including several dozen gunmen, who ran into the church on April 2 to flee advancing Israeli troops. The soldiers moved in as part of a large-scale military offensive in the West Bank following a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. Besides the 13 who came to Cyprus, 26 were exiled to the Gaza Strip. The rest of those still inside the church when the deal was struck went free. Israel accuses Daoud of organizing attacks on Israelis, making explosives, smuggling weapons and providing shelter to members of terror groups. Israel also says he is responsible for shooting attacks on Israelis. Daoud, shouting yesterday from the hotel balcony to a reporter on the rooftop of an adjacent building, said he did not know which country he was going to but that he nevertheless wanted to have a normal life. «I shall live like everyone else,» he said, adding without elaboration that contacts were already under way to reunite him with his family and two children, a boy and a girl. On Sunday, a Spanish Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the militants would be granted special permission to stay under the national laws of their host nations, with police surveillance. He said that they would not be allowed to travel to other EU nations. Daoud said he will remain engaged in political activity while in exile, «but only within the law.» As he spoke, he was joined by five other Palestinians on the balcony before the interview was abruptly halted as one of the Cypriot policemen ordered reporters off the roof.