BETHLEHEM, West Bank – In a strong indication that a deal had been reached to end a five-week siege, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to move all but 13 Palestinians from the embattled Church of the Nativity sometime Thursday, an Israeli official said.
A group of 26 suspected gunmen was going to Gaza and about 80 civilians inside would be freed, said Israeli army Capt. Jacob Dallal. Thirteen other suspected militants, slated for deportation, would be left behind in the church for now, he said.
Sources told Fox News that one possibility for those 13 gunmen could be sending them to Canada, after Italy balked at providing them asylum.
Palestinian negotiators said after daybreak Thursday that they would meet again with the Israelis to focus on safety guarantees for the remaining 13. That session wasn't expected to begin until about 9 a.m. (2 a.m. EDT) and there was no indication when any of the 26 Palestinians inside would depart.
Departure seemed imminent earlier when two Israeli buses pulled into the square near the church.
The Israelis said they would maintain a presence at the church until all the suspected Palestinian militants are out.
Word of the apparent breakthrough came came after negotiators from both sides met early Thursday and then were seen leaving the church. Also attending were a lawyer, two Franciscan priests and two Greek Orthodox monks who emerged from the church.
The siege began April 2 when more than 200 Palestinians fled into the church, which marks the birthplace of Jesus, ahead of invading Israeli forces. In the weeks that followed, several groups of civilians were allowed to leave.
Signaling that the end of the siege is near, the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Mohammed Madani, left the church for the first time since the siege began. He was accompanied by two priests as he ducked through the low-slung main door of the 4th-century church.
Earlier, one of the Palestinians inside the church, Abdulla Daoud, told The Associated Press by telephone that negotiators told him that the 26 should be ready to leave the church at a moment's notice.
Under a proposed agreement revealed Wednesday, the transfer to Gaza would take place under U.S. aegis, diplomatic sources said.
A dispute still remained over the weapons inside the church. The Palestinian Authority wants possession over all the weapons brought in by Palestinians but Israel is prepared to return only those weapons that belong to Palestinian policemen, the official said.
On Wednesday, Yaron Vatikay, a spokesman for the Israeli defense ministry, said Israel had agreed to exile 26 to Gaza but would not specify whether that meant they could go free there.
As far as 13 others who Israel considers most wanted, Vatikay said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer was discussing their fate with Javier Solana of the European Union.
According to Daoud, he and the 12 others would be moved somewhere else under international protection until a country could be found to take them.
Israel and the Palestinians had announced a deal Tuesday to end the five-week standoff at the Christian shrine by deporting the 13 militants to Italy. However, Italy said it had not been consulted and balked at accepting them.
Israel Radio said Wednesday that Spain was being discussed as an alternate possibility, but Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said his country had not been asked and would have a difficult time holding the men since they had not been charged with a crime there.
Despite a Palestinian suicide attack near Tel Aviv on Tuesday night that killed 15 bystanders, both sides remained committed to finding a solution to the standoff, Joel Lion, spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, said Wednesday afternoon.
Daoud, said he and the other 12 had reluctantly agreed to exile in Italy and were annoyed by the delay.
"Me and my colleagues in the church are anxious to see an end to this," he said. "We welcome any kind of solution except one — to be handed over to the Israelis."
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat approved the deportation deal, Palestinians said, but the decision to send the militants into exile is an extremely sensitive one and many Palestinians oppose it.
A leader of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, Hussein al-Sheik, said approving exile set a dangerous precedent. And the leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, criticized the deal.
"We are against deporting people and we are against this policy," he told The Associated Press. "We have the full right to stay on our land, but if people who are inside the church agreed to be deported, this is their own decision. It's not ours because we reject this policy."
Those remaining inside include 39 gunmen, as well as civilians, clerics, policemen and 10 foreign demonstrators who slipped past the Israelis into the church last week in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.
According to a Palestinian list of names obtained by The Associated Press, those slated for exile include nine members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, as well as three Hamas members and Daoud, who had served as the Bethlehem intelligence chief.
Daoud denied Israel's allegations that he organized attacks on Israelis, produced explosives, smuggled weapons, and provided shelter to members of terror groups. Daoud, who holds a bachelor's degree in political science from a West Bank university, said he hoped to continue his education in Italy.
Israel has said most on the list were involved in bombing and shooting attacks, including Ibrahim Moussa Abayat, accused of killing two Israelis and an American, Avi Boaz.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.