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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 03:36 GMT 04:36 UK
EU works on new Bethlehem deal
Negotiators in Bethlehem
A previous deal in Bethlehem fell apart
Cyprus is standing by to give temporary sanctuary to 13 Palestinian militants at the centre of the five-week siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Cyprus Government has accepted to keep for a few days in transit the 13 Palestinians

Yiannakis Cassoulides
The European Union is sponsoring a deal under which Cyprus will give the men temporary transit rights while their future is decided.

At least seven buses have arrived outside the church and a British military aircraft is reported to be ready to transport the militants to Cyprus.

Meanwhile, Israel is reported to be preparing to attack targets in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the suicide bombing on Tuesday near Tel Aviv which killed 15 Israelis.

The suicide bomber is believed to have come from Gaza and Israeli intelligence reports say more suicide attacks are planned.

Israel has begun calling up army reservists.

Details under discussion

"The Cyprus Government has accepted to keep for a few days in transit the 13 Palestinians," Cyprus's Foreign Minister, Yiannakis Cassoulides said.

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It is believed that the Palestinians will be kept at a Cyprus hotel under police guard.

The BBC's David Willey, in Rome, says Italy, Spain and several other EU countries have now conditionally agreed to give asylum to the militants.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is due to discuss the proposals with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, on Friday.

But our correspondent says much of the details of the plan have yet to be agreed, including which countries will take which gunmen.

Israel has yet to comment on the plan. It describes the 13 militants as "senior terrorists" but has said before it is willing to let them go into exile.

Transfer to jail

Under an agreement already worked out, 26 other militants inside the church would be transferred to jail in Gaza, while about 80 Palestinians and international activists would go free.

An earlier deal to end the siege fell through on Thursday after the Palestinian gunmen demanded a European official be brought in to protect them as others inside were evacuated.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat is under pressure from the US to crack down on militants

The Palestinians sought refuge in the church after Israeli troops stormed into Bethlehem on 2 April to root out militants from the city.

In a separate development, the Islamic militant group Hamas said on Thursday at least 14 of its members had been arrested in Gaza by Palestinian security forces acting on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's orders.

But it is thought unlikely that this will prevent an Israeli attack.

US President George W Bush welcomed the arrests but said Mr Arafat had to ensure terrorists stayed behind bars.

Hamas in Gaza claimed responsibility for Tuesday's suicide bombing of a social club in Rishon Letzion.

The Israeli cabinet authorised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer to decide what steps the army will now take.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, has said Israel "has to be very mindful of its responsibilities to protect peace in the region".

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said there was no plan for Israel to take control of the Gaza Strip, but called for "pinpoint" strikes.

Palestinians in Gaza have been stocking up with essential supplies, fearing a major Israeli assault.

The Palestinian Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, warned Israel that such a strike would only fuel the violence.

The BBC's John Andrew
"It is not a question of if but when Israel retaliate"
Sec Gen, World Jewish Congress, Avi Beker
"This is a revolving door policy"
Israeli Defence Analyst, Sam Katz
"It appears that they will be acting in the very near future"
See also:

09 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Siege unbroken
09 May 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Peace conference moves arouse Arab fears
09 May 02 | Middle East
Palestinian leader asserts himself
09 May 02 | Middle East
UN prepares Jenin report
08 May 02 | Middle East
Gaza fears Israeli assault
08 May 02 | Middle East
Witnesses speak of bomb horror
08 May 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
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