BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The 5-week standoff at the Church of the Nativity neared an end Friday with a complex deal to scatter 13 Palestinian militants among up to eight countries. Bethlehem's police chief said the Palestinians would begin leaving the church around daybreak.
The arrangement reached with European negotiators will clear the way for Israeli forces to withdraw from the last West Bank city they occupy, but does not spell an end to Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed. As the final logistics were being worked out, Israeli tanks stood poised outside the Gaza Strip early Friday ahead of an expected retaliatory attack for a suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis.
Palestinian negotiator Alaa Hosni, the Bethlehem police chief, said the deal would be carried out starting about 6 a.m. Minutes after that, seven red and white buses pulled up to the church, preparing to transport groups of Palestinians inside the church. It was expected to take several hours for all the Palestinians in the church to emerge, go through security and identity checks and be sent to their next destinations — exile in Europe, Gaza or home.
Manger Square, in front of the ancient church, was packed with Israeli soldiers and 10 army vehicles. At least six four-wheel-drive vehicles with diplomatic license plates were parked nearby.
Israel's siege over Christ's reputed birthplace was one of the focal points of its West Bank invasion, and ending it became an international cliffhanger of on-again, off-again breakthroughs.
On Thursday, a senior Palestinian official confirmed a new deal had been reached.
With Israel linking the 13 men to terrorism, finding a country willing to take them has been a major obstacle to ending the siege at one of the holiest sites in the Christian world.
The breakthrough came when Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said his country would temporarily take in the 13 Palestinians before they were flown to their final destinations.
A British military aircraft took off from an air base in Cyprus about 11 p.m. for Israel to pick up the men, said British officials in Cyprus, speaking on condition of anonymity. They said two Cypriot police were aboard to escort the Palestinians back. There was no word on the plane's arrival in Israel.
The standoff seemed near an end Tuesday, when negotiations initially designated Italy as the host country for the entire group of 13. But the Italian government balked, saying it had not been consulted.
An Italian Foreign Ministry official said late Thursday that under the new deal that emerged, Italy and Spain would take some of the militants, while Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, Ireland and perhaps Canada might take the rest. However, Canadian foreign affairs spokesman Oussamah Tamim said Canada hadn't been asked.
The Italian official, speaking on condition of anonymity from Rome, said the details of the exile would be worked out at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.
Before the latest agreement was reached Thursday, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi held phone discussions with Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, another Italian government official said.
A senior U.S. State Dept. official confirmed Powell's conversation with Berlusconi and said Powell also spoke with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou. The U.S. official said "we are hopeful" for a resolution.
Details of the conversations were not known, but within hours the agreement was announced by Italian and Israeli officials.
The United States has been heavily involved in trying to end the standoff. The Vatican had also taken a leading role, with Pope John Paul II sending an envoy to the region and making several pleas for the Palestinians and Israelis to end the crisis.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has come under strong criticism from other Palestinians for agreeing to let the men be deported, the first time a Palestinian leader has assented to such a punishment.
The siege at the Church of the Nativity began April 2, when more than 200 Palestinians fled into the shrine ahead of invading Israeli forces. In the weeks that followed, several groups of civilians and Palestinian policemen left the compound, leaving 123 people inside.
Aside from the 13 to be deported, a group of 26 suspected gunmen was to leave the church first and be transported to Gaza, said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman. The approximately 80 civilians inside the church would be freed as well, he said.
Earlier Thursday, buses pulled into Manger Square, presumably to transport those inside the church to their destinations. But hours later the talks broke down and the buses drove away empty.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators accused each other of violating the terms of that arduously reached agreement. The Palestinians said Israel refused at the last minute to implement the deal, and the Israelis said the Palestinians had made new, unacceptable demands.