Palestinian Militants Leave Cyprus

Twelve Palestinians whose exile helped end Israel's siege at a revered Bethlehem shrine flew Wednesday from Cyprus, where they had been confined since May 10, to the six European nations that have offered them temporary asylum.

The militants traveled to the Larnaca airport with Cypriot anti-terror police, who were dressed in black or camouflaged uniforms and had dogs sniffing for explosives. On arrival at the airport, they waved a Palestinian flag from the bus and flashed V-for-victory signs.

They left Cyprus aboard two European planes bound for the six EU nations. By midday, the militants being accepted by Italy and Greece had arrived in Rome and Athens, respectively. The others were to reach their destinations -- Spain, Ireland, Belgium and Portugal -- later in the day.

On the tarmac in Larnaca, Palestinian representative to Cyprus Samir Abu Ghazaleh bid farewell to the men.

"It's very difficult for people to leave their homeland like this," he said, referring to their departure from Bethlehem.

The militants were among about 200 Palestinians, including several dozen gunmen, who ran into Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on April 2 to flee Israeli troops advancing as part of a major offensive in the West Bank. They remained holed up there for more than a month, then were expelled from Bethlehem under the pact that ended Israel's siege.

The siege drew international attention, in part because the church is one of Christianity's holiest shrines: It marks the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Under a deal approved Tuesday, 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.

A 13th Palestinian, Abdullah Daoud, 41, head of the Palestinian intelligence service in Bethlehem and the most senior among the militants, was staying behind in Cyprus until an EU member accepts him.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides told reporters at the airport that Daoud will probably remain on the island for several weeks until "it is demonstrated that the twelve are absorbed well in the countries that have agreed to take them." He said that "could prompt one of the six nations to take the 13th Palestinian."

The EU said in a statement that the 12 militants would stay in their host nations "on a temporary basis and exclusively on humanitarian grounds."

An EU statement said the 12 would stay in their host nations for up to a year and would not be allowed to travel to other countries. EU officials did not say what would happen after that period.

Speaking to Spanish radio station RAC 1, EU Middle East envoy Miguel Moratinos said on Tuesday the men will be able to work or study in the EU countries that accept them.

In Italy, Interior Minister Claudio Scajola said the three militants going there would be subject to government-imposed security, housing and other arrangements to protect themselves "and to prevent dangers to the public order and for internal and international security." He said they would forfeit their right to stay in Italy if they abandoned those security arrangements.

Of the 13 militants, three are members of Hamas, a militant group advocating a strict version of Islam. Most belong to Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah group.

Hamas and Al-Aqsa are responsible for most of the 60 suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis since the current bout of Palestinian-Israeli violence began nearly 20 months ago.