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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
Palestinians wait to board bus
The church siege ended after a five-week stand-off
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By Jonny Dymond
BBC correspondent in Bethlehem

When the first men began to file out of the Church of Nativity, the overwhelming feeling in Bethlehem was of anticlimax.

Somehow it was not meant to be like this. We had expected winners and losers, triumph and disaster.
Relatives of those who were inside the Church
Relatives gathered to watch their relations emerge

Instead, without fanfare, one-by-one the men who had spent nearly six weeks under siege made their way out of the church and walked the 50 metres to the waiting Israeli soldiers.

Some waved, some kissed the ground but most, seemingly in good health, sauntered to the barrier. There they shook hands with a waiting priest and boarded the buses waiting in Manger Square.

Relatives excited

On top of the roof overlooking the square, where BBC Radio and TV had camped, there was more excitement.

Relatives of one of those inside the church, as well as the long-suffering residents had gathered to watch something some had thought might never come.

Some screamed with excitement. Others were close to tears.

Israelis troops were also in a good mood. Many of them were reservists, plucked from their jobs at the beginning of April to take part in an operation which turned into a mighty struggle of wills.

Church of the Nativity
The Israeli army has dismantled the observation post
Soldiers mingled among the media, sharing cigarettes, giving interviews and taking pictures of each other.

Because of the tight curfew imposed by the Israelis there are few of the groupies who rather bizarrely turn up to accompany the international media at these kinds of events.

But some did get in - two Tibetan monks in bright saffron robes stood on one of the highest rooftops chanting and tapping their drums.

In Manger Square, the Israeli army packed up the crane which was erected as an observation post.

When the so-called peace activists have cleared the church the army will leave Bethlehem entirely.

Forgotten victims

Then the largely unmentioned victims of this siege will be free to emerge.

Bethlehem residents have been caught between the stubbornness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships.

Tens of thousands of them have been confined to their homes for more a month, allowed out for only three hours every three days.

Once they finally emerge, the siege of Bethlehem will have truly ended.

See also:

10 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem church siege over
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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