Bethlehem standoff draws to a close after deal is agreed

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Palestinian officials agreed today to the deportation of 13 suspected militants holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to resolve the 36-day standoff with Israeli troops.

"We are glad that the tragedy has ended. What remains are just some logistical measures," said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, adding that he believed the deal could be implemented by the end of the day.

Under terms of the deal to solve the crisis at the church, 13 Palestinians would be sent first to Egypt and then to exile in Italy, and another 26 militants would be transported to the Gaza Strip; the remainder will be freed.

The outline of the deal was put together in intensive negotiations over the past few days, when Israel dropped its demand for the surrender or exile of all the gunmen in the church, and the Palestinians agreed to exile some of them. Over the past day, the haggling has been over the number to be exiled.

Ribhi Arafat and Farouk Amin, two Palestinian officials connected to the District Coordination Office, a liaison office with the Israeli military, went into the church before dawn today to talk to the 13. The Palestinian leadership had approved the deal in principle, but each of the 13 had to agree to it.

More than 200 people fled into the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem's main landmark, ahead of invading Israeli forces on 2 April. They included about 30 gunmen, including some the Israelis say were deeply involved in attacks against Israelis during 19 months of violence.

Others are civilians, clerics and police, as well as 10 peace protesters who slipped past the Israelis into the church last week to show solidarity with the Palestinians inside.

The Israeli military earlier released a list of its 10 top suspects in the church. First on the list is Ibrahim Musa Abayat, an activist in Tanzim, a group affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. The military said Abayat was involved in killing three Israelis in separate attacks.

Also on the list are Kamal Hassan Hamid, the Fatah leader in Bethlehem, and Abdallah Tirawi, who heads Palestinian intelligence in Bethlehem.

The CIA, Vatican and European Union were all involved in efforts to end the confrontation. Both Israelis and Palestinians climbed down from their original stands to put together the outline of the deal. Israel had been insisting that all the gunmen surrender to its soldiers outside the church; the Palestinians had said all should be transported to Gaza.

Early today, Israeli forces entered the West Bank town of Tulkarem, The military said their mission was to stop the sending of suicide bombers and "attack the terrorist infrastructure." A military statement said the operation would last "a short time."