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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Israel pulls out of Bethlehem
Worshipers are distraught upon seeing the conditions of the Church of the Nativity
Conditions in the church are squalid, but there is no major damage
The Israeli army has withdrawn from Bethlehem, after lifting a siege of almost six weeks on the Church of the Nativity.

The pullout began after 13 Palestinian militants, who have been exiled from the West Bank under a deal to end the siege, arrived in Cyprus.

Another group of militants involved in the standoff were given a hero's welcome when they arrived in the Gaza Strip, casting doubt on Israeli hopes that they would be put on trial.

"They will not be held, not even for an hour, nor will they be judged," said Palestinian Colonel Salem Dardonah.

Israeli soldiers inspect guns and ammunition found in the Church of Nativity
Weapons left behind were collected by American officials
Church siege deal
  • 13 militants to be exiled in Europe
  • 26 gunmen removed to Gaza
  • 84 civilians and police will be released
  • 10 activists to be deported

      Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

  • Israeli troops left Manger Square in armoured vehicles, to shouts of children and calls of Allahu Akbar (God is great) from the Mosque loudspeakers.

    The BBC's Jonny Dymond in Manger Square says the area filled up rapidly with Palestinians flocking to the church, pushing their way past the barriers that were there throughout the standoff, some running and touching the church's stonework.

    The withdrawal in effect ends Israel's military offensive in the West Bank, which was launched on 29 March.

    Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the end of the siege a "very important step".

    The Vatican welcomed the "happy conclusion" to the standoff, while US President George W Bush said the breakthrough was "a positive development".

    A public mass is due to be held in the church on Saturday.

    Deal in doubt

    The 13 militants, described by Israel as "senior terrorists", have been confined to a hotel in the Cypriot resort of Larnaca after the Cypriot Government agreed to give them temporary sanctuary.

    Voices from the Conflict

    Every human being who has his land invaded, all he possesses taken and his rights denied has a right to resist - he has a right to do this by any means he has

    Abu al Abed, Palestinian militant

      Read his story

    Portugal and Greece said on Friday they would take some of the militants, whose final destinations will be decided at a meeting of the European Union on Monday.

    Twenty-six other Palestinians, regarded by Israel as less dangerous, were bussed to the Gaza Strip where they were greeted by cheering crowds.

    Under the deal which brought the siege to an end, the group were expected to face trial in a Palestinian court, but it is now unclear how they will be dealt with.

    Siege over

    The mayor of Bethlehem said the town had paid a heavy price after a "brutal and destructive occupation", and he insisted that the mood in Bethlehem was sad despite the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

    BBC correspondent Orla Guerin, who entered the Church of the Nativity on Friday, described the conditions there as squalid, but said there was no apparent evidence of major damage.

    Two Palestinian men embrace after Israeli troops withdraw from Manger Square
    Palestinians rejoiced after Israel's withdrawal
    Weapons left behind in the church have been collected by American officials.

    The Israeli army said soldiers found 40 explosive devices during a search of the church following its evacuation.

    In the early evening two explosions could be heard from the area. One blast was heard inside, but there were no immediate reports of damage.

    The gunmen were among 200 Palestinians who took refuge in the church after Israeli troops stormed into Bethlehem on 2 April as part of a massive operation against militants.

    Eighty-four civilians and police who also left the church were to be set free in the Palestinian territories.

    Ten foreign pro-Palestinian protesters were the last to leave the church after earlier refusing to come out. They were arrested and are being questioned by Israeli authorities.

    Forces poised near Gaza

    Israeli forces raided the West Bank city of Tulkarm and blew up a six-apartment building that was home to a suicide bomber whose killing of 29 people in an Israeli hotel at the end of March provoked Israel's West Bank offensive.

    Israeli troops have also been massing outside the Gaza Strip in apparent preparation for a retaliatory strike after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis on Tuesday.

    Israel army radio said military chiefs were considering postponing an attack on Gaza, while Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he expected any operations to be "careful and measured".

    The BBC's Claire Marshall
    "A small note of optimism to those in the West Bank"
    Mayor of Bethlehem Hanna Nasser
    Civilian institutions have been destroyed
    See also:

    11 May 02 | Middle East
    Church emerges unharmed from siege
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Analysis: No winners from siege deal
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    In pictures: End of Bethlehem siege
    09 May 02 | Middle East
    Timeline: Bethlehem siege
    09 May 02 | Middle East
    Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
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