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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
One of the Palestinian militants carries his son upon arrival in Gaza City
The militants gave "victory" signs as they arrived
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by Barbara Plett
The BBC's correspondent in Gaza

Palestinian militants received a hero's welcome in the Gaza Strip after being sent there as part of a deal to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Israel besieged the church for more than five weeks after some 40 gunmen took refuge there to escape the army's invasion of Bethlehem.

Israel had wanted the men to be extradited to stand trial but agreed to send 13 into exile and 26 to the Gaza Strip.

The men crossed into Gaza through a covered passage usually used by Palestinian labourers.

They were gaunt and bearded after their ordeal in the Church of the Nativity.

'Freedom fighters'

But their exile to Gaza did not appear to mean captivity.

They were greeted by Colonel Salim Darduna, a senior security officer.

Militant at Gaza crossing point shows V-sign
There is no sign the men will change their ways
He said they were being received as freedom fighters who would be placed in the best hotels, and he said there would be no jailers or monitors.

As a bus took the men through Gaza City, they leaned out of the windows and flashed V-signs for victory.

People beside the road waved back; some shot celebratory rounds of gunfire; some ran after the bus.

Many of these men belong to a branch of the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, but as one said: "We are all resistance fighters in the end."

Future unclear

Israel wanted them to stand trial for taking part in anti-Israeli operations but considers them relatively minor offenders.

It agreed to send them to Gaza while 13 other more senior militants were sent into exile abroad.

It is not clear what will happen next with these men, but there is no sign they will change their ways or be restricted by security forces here.

When they reached their hotel, someone in the crowd handed an M16 rifle to them and they passed it around, shooting into the air.

See also:

10 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem militants fly into exile
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
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