NICOSIA, Cyprus – The 13 Palestinian militants flown to Cyprus after a five-week Israeli siege in Bethlehem are free men, not prisoners and not deportees, the European Union's envoy to the Middle East said Saturday.
Miguel Moratinos spoke to reporters after meeting with senior Cypriot officials and thanking them for temporarily taking in the Palestinians.
"I want to underline this point," Moratinos said. "They are not prisoners. They are not detained people. They have signed on a personal basis an agreement to go to a third country. They came here on a voluntary basis. It was not a deportation."
The 13 gunmen, whom Israel regards as terrorists, left the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the West Bank on Friday. Israel put them on a British military aircraft that flew them to Cyprus.
Israel accuses six of the 13 of involvement in attacks on Israelis and says the other seven are also suspected militants. But Israel has released no details on the allegations against the seven.
Twelve of the men are now staying under police guard at a beach front hotel in the southeastern city of Larnaca. The thirteenth is in Larnaca hospital being treated for a broken leg caused by a bullet wound.
Their deportation was part of a deal worked out with the United States and European Union to end Israel's five-week siege of the church. Under the arrangement, the more than 120 people holed up in the church were allowed to leave, with 26 Palestinians being banished to Gaza and the 13 militants sent into exile.
In Rome on Friday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel reserved the right to seek the extradition of the 13 Palestinians.
But the Palestinian representative to Cyprus, Samir Abu Ghazaleh, told reporters it was extremely unlikely that the men would be extradited to Israel.
"I can't imagine a situation whereby a murderer, and those who are arranging the massacres in (the West Bank town of) Jenin ... are asking to extradite our own citizens," Abu Ghazaleh said after visiting the men at their hotel in Larnaca.
Asked who he was calling a murderer, Abu Ghazaleh said: "You know what I mean."
European foreign ministers are expected to decide which countries will take the Palestinians when they meet Monday in Brussels.
Moratinos said there were no plans for the men to remain indefinitely in Cyprus.
"This is not being discussed. We hope we will know enough about which EU countries are ready to take them. If not, and if we have difficulties, we will have to raise the issue again but, in principle, no," he said.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides also ruled out the possibility of the 13 men staying in Cyprus.
"We are too close to the region and this would not be wise," he said.
Cyprus has been the scene of several deadly incidents involving Palestinians and Israelis.
Moratinos, accompanied by Abu Ghazaleh, visited the Palestinians on Saturday at the three-star Flamingo Hotel, where they are staying on a separate floor from other guests. They are receiving pork-free meals but are not allowed to receive visitors or incoming phone calls.