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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
Bethlehem militants fly into exile
Palestinian militants arrive in Larnaca
The militants will stay in Cyprus temporarily
Thirteen Palestinian militants exiled from the West Bank under a deal which ended the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem have arrived in Cyprus.

Another group of militants involved in the five-week stand-off have been given a hero's welcome in the Gaza Strip, casting doubt on Israeli hopes that they would be put on trial.

Church siege deal
  • 13 militants to be exiled in Europe
  • 26 gunmen removed to Gaza
  • 84 civilians and police will be released
  • 10 activists to be deported

      Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

  • "They will not be held, not even for an hour, nor will they be judged," said Palestinian Colonel Salem Dardonah.

    Israeli troops began withdrawing from Bethlehem a few hours after the siege ended.

    The church compound was evacuated after a blast inside in the early evening.

    Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the end of the siege a "very important step".

    The Vatican welcomed the "happy conclusion" to the standoff, while US President George W Bush said the breakthrough was "a positive development".

    Deal in doubt

    The 13 militants, described by Israel as "senior terrorists", have been confined to a hotel in the Cypriot resort of Larnaca after the Cypriot Government agreed to give them temporary sanctuary.

    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 - he has a right to do this by any means he has

    Abu al Abed, Palestinian militant

      Read his story

    Portugal and Greece said on Friday they would take some of the militants, whose final destinations will be decided at a meeting of the European Union on Monday.

    Palestinian officials said EU Middle East peace envoy Miguel Moratinos would visit the militants in the Flamingo Beach hotel on Saturday.

    Twenty-six other Palestinians, regarded by Israel as less dangerous, were bused to the Gaza Strip where they were greeted by cheering crowds.

    Under the deal which brought the siege to an end, the group were expected to face trial in a Palestinian court, but it is now unclear how they will be dealt with.

    As the men crossed into the Gaza Strip, Colonel Dardonah told reporters: "They have arrived in part of Palestine and they are free in their homeland."

    But Israeli military spokesman Olivier Rafowicz said the important thing was that they had been removed from the Bethlehem area.

    "They might be treated as heroes, but factually they lost and they know it," he told BBC News Online.

    Siege over

    BBC correspondent Orla Guerin, who went inside the Church of the Nativity on Friday, described the conditions there as squalid, but with no apparent evidence of major damage.

    Earlier, the militants emerged from the church one by one, looking gaunt but in apparently good health, passing through a metal detector before being escorted onto waiting Israeli buses.

    Israeli soldiers carry militant on a stretcher
    Two of the Palestinians were brought out on stretchers
    Some of the men waved and flashed victory signs to friends and relatives who had gathered in Manger Square.

    Weapons left behind in the church have been collected by American officials.

    The Israeli army said soldiers found 40 explosive devices during a search of the church following its evacuation.

    The gunmen were among 200 Palestinians who took refuge there after Israeli troops stormed into Bethlehem on 2 April as part of a massive operation against militants.

    Eighty-four civilians and police who also left the church will be set free in the Palestinian territories.

    Ten foreign pro-Palestinian protesters were the last group to leave the church after earlier refusing to come out.

    Beersheba blast

    As the siege ended, a blast thought to be caused by a hand grenade or bomb rocked a main street in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba.

    Israeli medical sources said at least four people were wounded.

    Police arrested a suspect near the scene of the explosion and detained a second man shortly afterwards.

    The attack came as Israeli troops massed outside the Gaza Strip in apparent preparation for a retaliatory strike after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis on Tuesday.

    Israel army radio said military chiefs were considering postponing an attack on Gaza, while Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he expected any operations to be "careful and measured".

    The BBC's Orla Guerin
    "Israel killed seven people during this siege"
    Israel foreign ministry official Mark Sofer
    "These are people we would like to see on trial"
    Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
    "I'm very much concerned about their safety"
    See also:

    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    No winners from siege deal
    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
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
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