Cyprus to act as staging post in Bethlehem deal

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The Independent Online

A deal was said to have been reached last night to end the 38-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

According to officials, the agreement would parcel out the 13 suspected Palestinian militants Israel wants deported among at least four European nations.

The Cypriot foreign minister, Yiannakis Cassoulides, said his country would temporarily take the 13 militants – 10 from Fatah or its affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and three from Hamas – before they were flown to their final destinations. An Italian diplomatic source named the countries that were agreeing to take the men in as Italy, Spain, Ireland, Austria, Greece and Luxembourg.

Earlier, the siege was only a few minutes from coming to an end when negotiations snagged on a new obstacle, prolonging the misery for the scores of people inside the basilica for a 38th day.

That agreement broke down on several fronts, including a disagreement over whether a European official should be allowed into the shrine to remain with the 13 militants, who were to remain in the church until an agreement had been reached on their country of exile.

The deal ran into trouble at the last moment, when coaches had drawn up in Manger Square, the plaza outside the church, and were waiting to carry off scores of others who had been in the church for more than a month.

As it became clear the agreement was unravelling, the coaches left and television crews were left to endure another day of waiting.

Early yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators said a deal was in place in which everyone in the church – except for the 13 – would leave. These were to include 26 Palestinians who Israeli regards as militants to be deported to the Gaza Strip. There are at least 130 people inside, including nuns, priests, Palestinian security men and civilians.

Sources close to the negotiations said the 13 Palestinians had wanted an EU representative to join them in the church as a confidence-building measure, not least because they feared an Israel attack. Israel has repeatedly said that its forces would not enter the church although its snipers have shot dead people in the compound.

It was unclear who had raised the objection. Some reports blamed the Americans, whose negotiators are led by the CIA.

Ala Hosni, the Palestinian police chief in Bethlehem, confirmed that the dispute had arisen over the proposed European envoy but said that the representative had been part of the agreement and that Israel had reneged on it.

A dispute is also understood to have arisen over the collection of weapons. There had been an agreement for the 13 men to deposit them in a police post in the church but that was also undermined by mistrust and hostility on both sides. Mr Hosni blamed the Israelis. "After we gave them two hours to prepare themselves, they surprised us by rejecting everything we had agreed upon."

While the search continued for countries willing to take the 13 militiamen, Jordan refused to accept them, saying that it objected in principle to the deportation of the Palestinians.

Like everything else in this ongoing saga, the deal was still far from certain.

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