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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Snags delay end to church siege
Tank outside Church of the Nativity
Israeli troops still occupy Manger Square
The Israeli army says a deal to end the Bethlehem church siege has hit a snag because no country is willing to accept 13 of the Palestinian militants holed up inside.

Earlier, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators struck a deal to end the five-week stand-off at the Church of the Nativity which involved sending the militants into exile in Italy.

What are the responsibilities of the hosting state? How must we keep them? In prison? In a convent? Are they free?

Italian Foreign Ministry official
But the Italian Foreign Ministry said it was at present out of the question for any of the Palestinians to be granted asylum in Italy.

An Israeli army spokesman, Captain Jacob Dallal, said: "The agreement is that they will go to another country, but right now we don't have a country".

More than 100 people are still inside the besieged church.

Israeli preparations

Israeli forces have set up barriers and metal detectors outside its small main entrance, in preparation for those inside to leave. Buses are standing by.

Palestinian families with Israeli soldier
Families of those to be exiled have gathered outside the church
Italian officials said they were ready to consider taking in the deportees, but insisted they wanted to hear more details.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said it had "never received any information from the parties about the process of the negotiations, nor were any requests advanced in the past few days from these parties".

Another possible sticking point is that there is now said to be a dispute about the terms under which the gunmen in the church will surrender their weapons.

  Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

The gunmen reportedly want written assurances that any weapons turned over to the Israelis will be returned after they leave Bethlehem.

The deal, which also involves the transfer of another 26 Palestinians to the Gaza Strip, came after 48 hours of talks mediated by the United States and the European Union.

Israeli soldiers speak to priests from the Church of the Nativity
Apart from the gunmen, there are civilians, priests and nuns in the church
The end of the siege is expected to lead to a speedy withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem, effectively ending Israel's military offensive in the West Bank.

The Israeli Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said Israel had already signed the deal and he expected the siege to be over "within a few hours".

Civilians, including nuns and priests, are among those in the church.

Sharon meets Bush

In Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to meet US President George W Bush on Tuesday.

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Sharon: seeking support from Bush to sideline Yasser Arafat
Mr Sharon is insisting that the Palestinian Authority should be reformed to make it less dependent on the will of Mr Arafat.

Mr Sharon has taken to the US details of what he calls "a serious plan, maybe the most serious" to end the conflict with the Palestinians.

Aides said the prime minister would argue that a long-term interim deal with the Palestinians should be worked out at a regional peace conference proposed by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Bush administration has so far resisted attempts by Mr Sharon to sideline Mr Arafat.

However, Mr Bush is said to be interested in the proposals to reform the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Sharon is expected to hand over to the US president a collection of documents which officials say proves links between Mr Arafat and terrorist organisations.

The documents have been dismissed as "lies and fabrications" by leading Palestinians.


Israeli tanks reportedly staged an incursion into the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm early on Tuesday, in search of Palestinian militants, army officials said.

Israeli forces also launched a raid into the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

Witnesses said that a 17-year-old youth was shot dead by troops.

The army said it had been searching for tunnels used for arms smuggling and that its soldiers shot at armed Palestinians who had fired on them first.

The BBC's Orla Guerin
"Bethlehem's long wait isn't over yet"
The BBC's David Willey reports from Rome
"Clearly, the Italians feel they have been slighted"
Italian Minister for Europe Rocco Buttiglione
"Those who come to Italy must not exercise any political activity"
See also:

07 May 02 | Middle East
Italy 'in dark' over Bethlehem deal
07 May 02 | Americas
Sharon steps up diplomacy
05 May 02 | Middle East
US criticises Arafat's leadership
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Church with a turbulent history
03 May 02 | Middle East
Q&A: Middle East peace conference
07 May 02 | Middle East
Analysis: If not Arafat, then who?
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