Six European countries agree to take militants

Click to follow

Six European Union countries offered sanctuary yesterday to the Palestinians freed from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but put off a decision on their legal status.

Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium say they are willing to accommodate the 13 men who are in Cyprus after being whisked out of Bethlehem at the end of the five-week siege. Although Belgium later indicated it might have legal difficulties, EU officials said there were clearly enough countries to take the men.

But EU foreign ministers at their talks in Brussels yesterday acknowledged that they were in uncharted territory, and were unable to resolve the vital legal questions about the treatment of the men, branded by the Israeli security services as terrorists. Nor did they decide practical issues such as how many men would go to each host country.

The EU agreement was reached after they received assurances from Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, that he had instructed the men "to fully respect and abide [by] the laws and procedures of the host countries".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said: "The EU was able to broker the resolution of the Bethlehem stand-off, which was of huge importance in getting the peace process going. The EU has agreed to take them."

The men are expected to be given temporary protection rather than full asylum. Britain did not offer to accept the Palestinians, although officials said it would consider doing so, if necessary.