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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Palestinian militants deal 'close'
Palestinians exiles
The militant's fate may be decided by Tuesday
A European Union envoy in Cyprus has said an agreement was within reach on the distribution of 13 exiled Palestinian militants to European countries, and the issue would be resolved "today or tomorrow".

Middle East regional representative Miguel Moratinos was speaking after meeting with the 13 in the Larnaca hotel where they have been staying since leaving the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem under an EU-brokered deal.

Host countries
Spain: Three
Italy: Three
Greece: Two
Ireland: Two
Portugal: One
Belgium: One
Cyprus: One for now

"The joint action will be finalised tomorrow in Brussels. There are still some small issues to deal with," he told the Associated Press.

"We hope that by today, no later than tomorrow, everything will be solved. The discussions are still ongoing in order to finalise the distribution of the 13 Palestinians," he said.

Cyprus foreign minister Ioannis Cassoulides
Cassoulides: Cyprus will not take in any of the militants

Mr Moratinos said there was a preliminary agreement on the status of the 13, with the same designation applying to all of them. They would be "free men on humanitarian grounds".

On Sunday, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides denied his country, which is not a member of the EU, would be offering a permanent refuge to any of the militants.

Mr Cassoulides said under the current plan, Spain and Italy were each expected to take three of the men; Greece and Ireland to accommodate four between them, and Portugal and Belgium would each accept one.

The Cypriot foreign minister said Finland late in the day had offered to take the remaining Palestinian, but that final arrangements were still being discussed.

Cyprus accepted the militants as part of a deal to end the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

But it has said all along that it was a temporary measure until the EU had decided where their ultimate destinations would be.

Diplomatic coup

Israel regards the 13 as the most dangerous of the Palestinian militants who barricaded themselves inside the Church of the Nativity for nearly 40 days.

Palestinian militants leave the Church of the Nativity
The EU helped to broker the deal that ended the Bethlehem stand-off

The EU offered to take the militants into exile to end the stand-off between the Israeli army and the Palestinians at the church on 10 May. The deal was supported by the United States and the Vatican.

EU foreign ministers have decided that none of the 13 should face arrest, and they have received assurances from Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that Israel will not seek their extradition.

The men will also be entitled to reunification with their families at a later date.

The resolution of the Bethlehem siege has been seen as a diplomatic coup for the EU, whose interventions in the Middle East have tended to be overshadowed by the United States.

The Palestinian leadership has come under heavy criticism for allowing the exile of men regarded as heroes of resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian International Co-operation Minister Nabil Shaath said he hoped the men's return could be agreed during "the coming final-status negotiations, in addition of the release of all of the Palestinian detainees".


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See also:

19 May 02 | Middle East
10 May 02 | Middle East
10 May 02 | Middle East
10 May 02 | Middle East
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