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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Bethlehem church siege over
Palestinian leaves the church
The most-wanted men are being flown to Cyprus
All of the Palestinian militants and civilians besieged inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem have now left, ending the five-week stand-off with Israeli troops.

Thirteen of the militants - described by Israel as most-wanted terrorists - are flying to Cyprus, which agreed to give them temporary sanctuary until their final place of exile is decided.

Church siege deal

  • 13 militants to be exiled in Europe
  • 26 gunmen face trial in Gaza
  • 85 civilians and police will be released
  • 10 activists to be deported

      Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

  • Twenty-six other militants who left the church have arrived in Gaza, while 85 Palestinian civilians will be set free in the Palestinian territories.

    As the group left the church, a blast rocked the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, while Israeli troops massed outside the Gaza Strip in apparent preparation to retaliate for a Palestinian suicide attack in northern Israel on Tuesday.

    The only people remaining in the church are 10 pro-Palestinian peace activists from the International Solidarity Movement, who face deportation and are refusing to leave.

    But doubts over the deal which ended the siege are emerging, after a senior Palestinian security official said those sent to the Gaza Strip would neither be tried nor jailed.

    "They will not be held, not even for an hour, nor will they be judged," Colonel Salem Dardonah told reporters at the Erez crossing point, according to AFP news agency.

    Beersheba blast

    As the siege ended, an explosion was reported near a bank in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba.

    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.

    Abu al Abed, Palestinian militant

      Read his story

    Israeli medical sources said at least four people were wounded.

    Officials said the blast was caused by a hand grenade or a bomb.

    Police arrested a suspect near the scene of the explosion and are searching for an accomplice.

    The attack came as Palestinians in the Gaza Strip braced themselves for Israeli military strike.

    Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on Friday that he expected "careful and measured" action against militants in Gaza and that Israel had no plans to reconquer the territory.

    Israeli media have reported that the suicide bomber who killed 15 Israelis in Rishon Letzion came from Gaza, where the headquarters of the militant Islamic group Hamas is based.

    Flown to Cyprus

    A British military plane collected the 13 most-wanted men from Israel's Ben Gurion airport and is on its way to Cyrpus.

    Israeli soldiers carry militant on a stretcher
    Two of the Palestinians were brought out on stretchers

    Earlier, the men emerged from the church one-by-one, passing through a metal detector before being escorted onto waiting Israeli buses.

    Some of the men waved and flashed victory signs to friends and relatives who had gathered in Manger Square.

    Their weapons which were left behind in the church have been collected by American officials.

    Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said: "I think we achieved all our goals and the innocent people, the clergy and the priests who were held there were released intact."

    Correspondents say however that one early aim of the Israeli Government - the trial of the militants in Israeli courts - has not been achieved.

    Into exile

    The militants had agreed to be exiled but negotiations to end the siege suffered repeated setbacks until several European countries said they would take the men.

    Diplomats said the men would be held under armed guard at a hotel, possibly in Larnaca, until their final destinations are decided at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Monday.

    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.

    Israeli military officials said troops would withdraw from the city as soon as possible.

    The BBC's Peter Van Velsen
    "One by one they came out"
    Israel foreign ministry official Mark Sofer
    "These are people we would like to see on trial"
    The BBC's Claire Marshall in Bethlehem
    "To the very last minute there were hitches"
    See also:

    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
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