Palestinians Leave, Israeli Troops
Quit Nativity Church Area

By Michael Georgy

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - A group of Palestinian fighters left Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity for exile on Friday and Israeli troops pulled out of Manger Square following a deal that ended a 38-day standoff.
The 13 Palestinians on Israel's most-wanted list were flown to Cyprus, the first stop in an exile that will take them to third countries under a European-brokered deal.
Twenty-six other Palestinians considered less serious offenders by Israel were expelled from the West Bank and taken by armored bus to Gaza. They were greeted as heroes by flag-waving crowds and will be housed in a smart beachside hotel.
"The end of the standoff in Bethlehem is a positive development that removes an obstacle to restoring security cooperation between the parties and should advance the prospects for resuming a political process toward peace," President Bush said in a statement.
Israeli troops pulled out of Manger Square in three armored personnel carriers as cheering Palestinian children ran toward the church and calls of "Allahu Akhbar," or "God is Greater" rang out from loudspeakers on mosques.
An Israeli military source confirmed that Israeli forces had quit the area around the shrine.
Despite the breakthrough, under which scores of civilians, clergy and police also left the site revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, tensions remained high.
Three people were slightly hurt in an explosion in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Police arrested two Palestinians suspected of planting a bomb near a bank.
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians braced for an expected military onslaught after a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis near Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Israel has called up reservists and made no secret that it plans to launch a new military operation after winding down a crushing offensive in the West Bank that followed earlier suicide attacks in the 19-month-old revolt against Israeli occupation.
"This is a small episode, a small component of a larger and more complex picture," Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said of the end of the Bethlehem siege, which began when gunmen took refuge in the church as troops entered the city on April 2.
"Israel is still besieging all the Palestinian towns, cities and villages. Israel is preparing military incursions, carrying out incursions," she said in a television interview.
Army officials confirmed a troop and tank withdrawal would follow the deal in Bethlehem, but did not say when.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, speaking during a visit to Italy, said the pullout would take place in a "matter of hours or days."
The gunmen emerged as heavily armed Israeli soldiers ringed historic Manger Square and camera crews from around the world looked on. Many of the militants looked haggard and tired.
Some strode defiantly past the troops after leaving the 4th century church, whose interior was strewn with mattresses, food scraps and what the Israeli army said were 40 explosive devices left behind by the gunmen.
One Palestinian was carried out on a stretcher. Another knelt and kissed the ancient stones outside the church.
Women relatives stood on nearby rooftops calling out the men's names. Some were wailing and others shouted abuse at Israeli troops. "Goodbye, our beloved ones!" yelled a middle-aged woman.
One by one the 13 slated for exile entered a bus which took them to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport. A British military aircraft flew them to Cyprus, where they were taken to a seafront hotel.
European diplomatic sources said Italy, Spain and other countries were willing to take some of the wanted gunmen. Diplomats have said there were no plans to keep them in custody.
Diplomats said the final destinations of the 13 men might be settled only when EU foreign ministers hold a regular meeting in Brussels on Monday.
Another 26 Palestinians boarded a bus and were taken to the Gaza Strip to a rapturous welcome. One of the fighters leaned out of the bus window and fired shots in the air from an assault rifle.
About 100 people including clerics, church workers and police who had remained inside the church also left the shrine.
In a last-minute snag, 10 foreign peace activists who had slipped in during the siege suddenly refused to leave, but they were later escorted from the church by Israeli police.
Israel had said some of those in the church were hostages.
Palestinians said all were there of their own accord.
"All these 13 (gunmen) had blood on their hands," Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin told CNN. "I think it is only a just solution to a very complicated situation."
Israel had originally wanted all militants, including members of the Islamic Hamas movement and Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, to surrender or be deported. Palestinian officials at first refused to consider sending any of the men into exile.
Palestinians fear the Israeli army will now take action in Gaza, particularly after Israeli media said the man who carried out Tuesday's suicide bombing may have come from the small strip of land bordering Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
Hamas, which has made the Gaza Strip a power base, has not said whether it carried out the attack, despite media speculation in Israel.
At least 1,345 Palestinians and 473 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian revolt began.


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