New deal reached on standoff in Bethlehem

Spain might accept 13 militants

others in church would go free

May 09, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached a new agreement early today for ending the standoff at the Church of the Nativity, one that will require 13 Palestinian militants who have already agreed to be deported to stay in the church with American and European observers until a country agrees to take them.

About 110 other Palestinians would leave the church early today, and 26 of them would be sent to a jail in the Gaza Strip as previously negotiated, according to Palestinian and Israeli government sources and one of the gunmen inside the church.

Spain is the country most likely to take some or all of the 13 gunmen, the sources said.

An agreement to send them to Italy collapsed Tuesday when Italian authorities balked, saying they had not been sufficiently consulted about the deal.

Spain holds the presidency of the European Union, which has been active in the negotiations.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, speaking at a news conference in Madrid, said, "We are dealing with this both with the U.S. government and our colleagues in the European Union.

"We have had several conversations about it and the matter is being studied."

Signaling that the end of the siege was near, the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Mohammed Madani, left the church late last night for the first time since the siege began.

He was accompanied by two priests as he ducked through the low main door of the fourth-century church.

Palestinians inside the church said negotiators told 26 Palestinians to be ready to leave momentarily.

"This is a tough situation right now," Ibrahim Abayat, 29, commander of Bethlehem's Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said in a telephone interview from the church.

"In the past six weeks, many of us have bonded," he said.

"We are now, as we did on Tuesday, saying goodbye to each other and wishing each other the best."

Earlier, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said he was not sure whether the new agreement would go into effect.

"I won't believe anything until I see with my own eyes that people are coming out of the church," he said.

Until the standoff ends, the army is keeping 80,000 residents under curfew and tanks parked on streets.

"I want my city back," Nasser said.

Officials said early today that an American or European diplomat would enter the church to tell the people trapped inside how the transfer would take place and to give assurances that they would not be harmed.

The standoff began when about 30 gunmen shot their way into the church 37 days ago to escape the Israeli army.

They have been there ever since, along with 123 other Palestinians, several dozen priests and a handful of peace activists.

Officials said the 26 Palestinians to be jailed in Gaza would be driven there in cars of the Palestinian Authority with American and British observers. Those same observers would oversee the men's incarceration.

About 85 other Palestinians -- including police, civil servants and civilians -- would then walk out of the church, pass through a metal detector and board a bus to an Israeli military base.

Officials said their identity will be verified and then they will be set free.

The 13 most wanted men would stay behind and wait for a country to accept them.

The priests inside have always been free to go, they have said, and would most likely remain.

They have said they did not leave the church during the siege because they wanted to stay to protect the shrine.

However, several issues remained unresolved. The Israeli military had promised to withdraw from Bethlehem as soon as the siege ended.

It was unclear whether troops would leave after the departure of the first two groups or wait until the 13 militants leave.

There also is the issue of weapons.

While sources on both sides of the conflict said the militants would be disarmed, even as they stay in the church, several of the gunmen have said in interviews that they would give up their weapons only to the Palestinian Authority, not to the Israeli army.

Officials have not said what status the 13 militants would have in their new country.

The gunmen believe they will be free; Italian and Spanish officials have asked whether the men, who have not been arrested, tried or convicted of any crime, could be confined.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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