- 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.
- PALESTINIANS BRACE IN GAZA
- In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians braced for an expected
military onslaught after a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis near Tel Aviv
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- MILITANTS FLOWN TO CYPRUS
- 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
- 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
- At least 1,345 Palestinians and 473 Israelis have been
killed since the Palestinian revolt began.