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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 20:31 GMT 21:31 UK
Israel poised to strike Gaza
Israeli tanks outside Gaza
Ariel Sharon has called for pinpoint strikes
Israel has begun calling up army reservists ahead of an anticipated strike against Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli cabinet has authorised military retaliation for a suicide bombing which killed 16 people near Tel Aviv on Tuesday. The bomber is believed to have come from Gaza.

Bethlehem Church of the Nativity
An earlier deal to end the church siege broke down
Israeli military sources say that, according to intelligence reports, more Palestinian suicide bombings are planned.

In Bethlehem, the European Union is sponsoring a new deal aimed at ending the five-week long siege at the Church of the Nativity.

Cyprus's Foreign Minister, Yiannakis Cassoulides, said his country had agreed to take temporarily 13 militants holed up inside the church until a more permanent home had been found.

"The Cyprus Government has accepted to keep for a few days in transit the 13 Palestinians whose expulsion the government of Israel has demanded," he said.

Conditional agreement

He said a UK military aircraft would fly from the British air base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, to Tel Aviv to collect the militants and return to Cyprus's Larnaca airport.

It is believed the Palestinians would be kept at a Larnaca hotel under police guard.

Mr Cassoulides did not say when he expected the militants to leave adding: "We hope this will happen as soon as possible."

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.

Gaza arrests

The Islamic militant group Hamas says at least 14 of its members have been arrested in Gaza by Palestinian security forces acting on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's orders.

Voices from the Conflict

Seeing babies that are critically injured, looking at pregnant women or old people that are injured... it is not so easy

Yonatan, Israeli rescue worker

  Read his story

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

Hamas in Gaza claimed responsibility for Tuesday's suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion.

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

The cabinet overnight 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 and work toward a vision of peace".

Arafat condemns 'terrorism'

The Gaza arrests came after Mr Arafat ordered his security forces "to confront and prevent all terrorist operations against Israeli civilians" after the attack on a social club .

However, correspondents note that in the past the Palestinian authorities have temporarily detained Hamas activists, but released them soon after.

Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel radio the cabinet agreed "on the necessity of our troops intervening against the terrorist infrastructures in the Gaza Strip".

Retaliation

Israeli forces have been massing near the Gaza Strip.

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.

"We hope that the American administration has told them that going towards political solutions is the only outlet and that the war against Gaza will only lead towards widening this vicious circle of violence."

The West Bank has been the focus of recent Israeli military operations to root out Palestinian militants and the army has not so far entered Gaza on a large scale.

Israeli media said the suicide bomber came from Gaza, where Hamas' headquarters and senior leaders are based.

Past setbacks

Israel has yet to comment on the latest plan to end the siege in Bethlehem. It describes the 13 militants as "senior terrorists",

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.

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

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John Andrew
"It's not a question of if but when Israel retaliates"
Israeli government spokesman Mark Sofer
"We cannot sit idly by and pretend it did not happen"
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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