Church standoff ends as first 13 walk out

26 other gunmen, 85 civilians to follow

May 10, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Palestinian gunmen, some waving or flashing V-signs, walked out of the Church of the Nativity today, marking the end of a 39-day standoff with Israeli troops at one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

The men emerged one by one from the low-slung Gate of Humility, the basilica's main door, into the bright sunlight of Manger Square. Two were brought out on stretchers, and one man briefly dropped to the ground, kneeling in prayer.

In a deal reached yesterday with European negotiators, the 13 militants were being deported to European countries and another 26 were being transferred to the Gaza Strip. Eighty-five Palestinian civilians and policemen were to be released, while 10 pro-Palestinian activists who slipped into the church were also being deported.

The deal cleared the way for Israeli forces to withdraw from the last West Bank city they occupy, but did not spell an end to bloodshed. Even as the evacuation took place, Israeli tanks stood poised outside the Gaza Strip ahead of an expected retaliatory attack for a suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis.

Israel's siege over Christ's reputed birthplace was one of the focal points of its West Bank invasion, and ending it became an international cliffhanger of on-again, off-again breakthroughs.

The crisis began April 2, when more than 200 people fled into the church ahead of invading Israeli troops. Israel insisted that the gunmen among them must surrender, but dropped that demand when the Palestinians agreed that 13 of the senior militants would be deported and others sent to Gaza.

Arduous negotiations characterized the effort to defuse the standoff until a breakthrough came yesterday.

Shortly before 7 a.m. today the first Palestinian emerged - Bethlehem intelligence chief Abdullah Daoud, the most senior in the group and slated for exile.

Others followed in a slow but steady stream, some waving to Palestinian civilians watching from nearby rooftops. Several women holding babies shouted to them, "My beloved sons, may God bless you."

Among the 13 to be deported are nine members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and nine members of the Islamic militant group Hamas. The 13th is Daoud, the intelligence chief.

Arafat came under scathing criticism from Fatah and Hamas for approving the deportations - a first in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has expelled hundreds of Palestinian activists since the 1967 Middle East war, but always in a unilateral move.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN that Israel was pleased with the deal. "The church will remain intact, it will be returned to the worshippers, and the terrorists will pay for their crimes."

"For many years, we have had a strategy to not give in to terror," said Israeli Brig. Gen. Eival Giladi. "Today we have held up to that strategy. We didn't these 39 people to return to their homes and return to terror. We have accomplished our mission peacefully."

An hour after the first gunmen emerged from the church, the first two buses pulled away from Manger Square and a third was filling up with Palestinians.

The Palestinians were to be taken to a nearby Israeli military base, Gush Etzion, so their identities could be confirmed by U.S. and British Secret Service agents, a process expected to take a few hours at most. From there, the group of 13 was to be taken to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, where a plane was to fly them to Cyprus. The second group was to be bused to Gaza and the civilians were to be released in Palestinian areas.

From Cyprus, the 13 are to be sent to final destinations among Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Luxembourg and Ireland.

There was no indication that the Palestinians would face confinement in the host countries. An Italian Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the details of the exile would be worked out at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday.

A major obstacle in resolving the standoff was locating a country willing to take the militants, whom Israel had linked to terrorism. Finally, Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said yesterday that his country would temporarily take in the 13 Palestinians before they were flown to their final destinations.

The standoff seemed near an end Tuesday, when negotiations initially designated Italy as the host country for the entire group of 13. But the Italian government balked, saying it had not been consulted.

In a false alarm, buses pulled into Manger Square yesterday morning. But hours later talks broke down and the buses drove away empty. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators accused each other of violating the terms.

Seven Palestinians were killed during the 39-day standoff - five of them armed, one a Palestinian firefighter and the other a mentally retarded bell ringer shot when he entered the square on the first day of the siege.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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