Israel completes withdrawal from Bethlehem

Friday, May 10, 2002

Associated Press WriterBETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Israeli troops and armor completed their pullout from Bethlehem Friday, after a tense standoff at the Church of the Nativity ended with 13 suspected Palestinians militants flying into exile.

The withdrawal effectively ended the Israeli military incursion into the West Bank that began March 29 after a string of Palestinian suicide bombings. Israel said it launched the offensive to crush the Palestinian terrorist network and its infrastructure.

After the militants in the church and a number of there foreign supporters left, journalists touring the church found it littered with trash, bedrolls and stinking of urine. The wooden altar in the Armenian section of the basilica had been used as a food table and was covered with a coffee pot and the remnants of meals. In one area, there were two unopened cans of beans.

When the pullout began in Bethlehem's Manger Square, several dozen Palestinian children outside the church clapped and whistled.

The standoff at the holy Christian shrine began April 2 after more than 200 Palestinians, including wanted militants, ran into the church fleeing advancing Israeli troops.

Earlier, the gunmen had one-by-one walked through the low-slung Gate of Humility, the basilica's main door, into the hazy sunlight of Manger Square. Some waved or flashed victory signs, and one man briefly dropped to the ground, kneeling in a Muslim prayer pose. Two men were carried out on stretchers.

The exiled militants were flown by British military transport to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus were they were put up at a seaside hotel under police guard.

In Rome, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel reserved the right to seek extradition of the 13 exiled Palestinians.

He said seeking extradition would "depend upon the circumstances" and suggested that if the men were set free, Israel might try to bring them back for trial in Israeli courts.

Israeli army Capt. Ron Edelheit said troops found 40 explosive devices in the church in a search.

The ancient basilica, built over the spot where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born, was strewn with mattresses and unwashed pots and pans.

Israeli troops had periodically provided food to the clergymen inside, who then distributed it among the Palestinians. One priest, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that the foreigners had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol. He said he was also upset by the trash in the compound.

Jesus' birth grotto, which is just a few steps down from the main hall of the basilica, was in pristine condition. Some of the younger Palestinians had slept there since it was the warmest spot, but were later persuaded to move elsewhere so priests could conduct services there.

There were no signs of damage to the church, though several rooms in other buildings in the compound had been scorched by fire. One of the foreign activists had said earlier that a 12th century fresco in the basilica was damaged by gunshots. However, the mosaic was badly preserved and it was not clear whether the damage was new.

Earlier, Israeli police in riot gear later entered the church to forcefully remove 10 foreign activists, including four Americans, who sneaked into the church on May 2 in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.

The Vatican hailed what it termed the "happy" end to the standoff in a statement issued at the end of a visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

"The meeting took place fortunately in the context of the happy conclusion to the siege of the Basilica of the Nativity of Bethlehem, which must not in any case make people forget the grave problems that still hamper the achievement of peace," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

In Washington, President Bush issued a statement calling the end of the standoff a positive move.

"The end of the standoff in Bethlehem is a positive development that removes an obstacle to restoring security cooperation between the parties and should advance the prospects for resuming a political peace process," President Bush said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces massed near the Gaza Strip for a possible strike in retaliation for suicide bombings, including one this week that left 15 Israelis dead and was claimed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed retaliation and action appeared imminent, with troops and tanks heading toward Israel's border with Gaza, where Hamas is based.

In the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, meanwhile, a bomb exploded near a bank Friday, slightly injuring six people. Police detained two suspects.

Thirteen of the gunmen who emerged from the Church of the Nativity were driven to Israel's international airport near Tel Aviv and flown to Cyprus where they were ensconced in a seaside hotel under police guard.

Twenty-six others were driven in two buses to the Gaza Strip, under U.S. escort. Seventy-three Palestinian civilians and policemen not wanted by Israel were released.

U.S. personnel removed weapons from the church as Israeli soldiers guarded the main door and clergy looked on. In all, 90 pistols and assault rifles were removed. The Americans put rods down the barrels to check for ammunition, tagged the weapons and placed them in American vehicles.

Among the 13 deportees were nine members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and three members of the Islamic militant Hamas group. The 13th is Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian intelligence chief in Bethlehem.

From Cyprus, the exiles were to continue on to Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and possibly Canada, according to EU officials.

There was no indication that the Palestinians would face confinement in the host countries. An Italian 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 on Monday.

The United States, the Vatican and EU officials were heavily involved in negotiations to end the standoff.

The main sticking point in recent days had been finding a host country for the 13 top wanted men. Italy balked at taking in all the men but a breakthrough came when Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said his country would temporarily take them until they were flown to final destinations.

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