EU Agrees on Destinations of Exiles

The European Union has agreed on how to distribute 13 Palestinian militants exiled under a deal that ended Israel's siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

Spain and Italy will each take three of the militants, Greece and Ireland will each take two, and Portugal and Belgium will each accept one, the ministry said. It said one will stay in Cyprus, which is not an EU member and is currently temporarily putting up the 13 men.

The ministry at first said that Finland would take one of the Palestinians, but after a denial from the Finnish Foreign Ministry, Spain said the man would go to Belgium.

There was no immediate confirmation from Brussels. Finland was not on the original list of six EU nations that agreed to take the militants; Belgium was.

Spain, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, did not say when the 12 men who are to leave Cyprus would do so. Samir Abu Ghazaleh, the Palestinian envoy to Cyprus, told The Associated Press he does not expect them to leave the Mediterranean island before Tuesday.

Abu Ghazaleh said it was unlikely they would be able to leave earlier because of paperwork. He said he had received no official word on who would go to which country.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique closed the deal late Saturday after a series of telephone conversations with other EU officials. Miguel Angel Moratinos, EU special envoy for Middle East, was also involved in the negotiations.

The EU offered to take in the militants in a successful effort to defuse the 39-day standoff in Bethlehem, and the 13 were taken to Cyprus to await a decision on their fate.

The Spanish foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the militants would be granted special permission to stay under the national laws of their host nations, with police surveillance. He said that they would not be allowed to travel to other EU nations.

EU diplomats had been working for four days to find a solution on the share out of the Palestinians and their legal status once they arrive.

Six EU nations — Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain — agreed last week to take the Palestinians, but the transfer has been held up over how many each would take and on their legal status.

Officials said the breakthrough came when Greece agreed to take two militants and Cyprus one. Spanish officials thanked Cyprus, which is hoping to join the EU in 2004, for its cooperation.

EU foreign ministers decided last Monday that the men would not be arrested or detained and received assurances from Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that Israel would not seek their extradition.

Israel considers the men the most dangerous among those who were holed up in the church, one of Christianity's holiest sites. The deal to end the standoff was backed by the EU, the United States and the Vatican.

Some 200 Palestinians, including several dozen gunmen, ran into the church on April 2 to flee Israeli troops who were advancing following a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. The standoff ended May 10.