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Settlement of church siege delayed

An Israeli soldier stands guard near the Church of the Nativity on Monday.
An Israeli soldier stands guard near the Church of the Nativity on Monday.  

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- A resolution to the 35-day standoff between 123 Palestinians holed up inside the Church of the Nativity and the Israeli military has been reached, Palestinian officials said Tuesday, but has hit a snag.

Under the terms of the deal, 13 Palestinians inside the Bethlehem, West Bank church whom Israel accuses of being "senior terrorists" would be deported.

The settlement is being delayed because no country has yet agreed to take them as exiles, an Israeli army spokesman said Tuesday.

"We have reached an understanding to resolve the crisis at the Church of the Nativity," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz. "Implementation is being delayed because no country is willing to accept the terrorists."

While Italy has been discussed as the country where they would go, the Italian Foreign Ministry rejected the proposal that the nation accept the 13 Palestinians. (Full Story)

CNN's Matthew Chance says negotiations to end the siege at the Church of the Nativity stumble over the question of deportations (May 7)

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    The delay in the deal came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was visiting Washington for talks with President Bush. Sharon is carrying a dossier the Israeli government says links Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to terrorism. The Israeli leader also is bringing a peace plan calling for buffer zones between Israel and the Palestinians.

    King Abdullah of Jordan is also in Washington, where he plans to meet with Bush this week to discuss the Middle East peace process.

    The White House meetings are expected to serve as building blocks for a coming international peace conference on the region.

    According to Aziz Halil Mohammed Abayed -- a Palestinian pharmacist who is inside the church and wanted by the Israelis -- under the accord, Palestinian leaders had agreed to send 13 militants inside the church to exile in Italy, and another 26 to Gaza, where they could face trial. Abayed told CNN he would be one of those exiled to Italy.

    He said he learned of the agreement from two Palestinian officials who entered the church to present the gunmen inside with a list of the 13 who would be deported.

    Palestinians expressed frustration about the negotiations and the deal.

    "We don't agree with this agreement, but we [are] forced to be silent," Abayed said, adding that many people inside the church need medical attention.

    "We are forced to be silent to give the others free[dom] to come here to the church and to free our people here inside Bethlehem."

    He added that if he and the others inside the church were to remain there, "many persons and many of our family and many of our friends here will be dead."

    Bethlehem's mayor also acknowledged that an agreement had been struck that would end the Israeli incursion into his city.

    "The deal is over. They are very glad of this deal. The price has been a very, very, very big price to pay on the Palestinian side," said Hanna Nasser.

    The siege at the church, built over what Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, began April 2 when Palestinian gunmen entered the church after Israeli troops and tanks rolled into Bethlehem.

    Israeli defense officials had promised to withdraw their troops from the city and nearby Beit Jala as soon as the standoff ends.

    But Israeli soldiers arrested 40 Palestinians and destroyed an explosives lab in the West Bank city of Tulkarem Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces said. A statement said that the 40 are suspected of terrorist activity and 20 are wanted by security forces.The IDF said its troops had pulled out of the city, but had encircled a nearby refugee camp.

    Palestinian officials had said Sunday a deal had been struck, but an Israeli source said Arafat still had to sign off on the details and negotiations resumed into Monday.

    Bethlehem was the last major Palestinian city occupied by Israeli forces during "Operation Defensive Shield." Israeli forces rolled in to Ramallah the evening of March 28 in what Sharon said was a campaign to "root out the terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank.

    Last week, Israeli troops pulled back from Arafat's compound in Ramallah when six Palestinians wanted by Israel were transported to a jail in Jericho under international supervision. That left Bethlehem the last standoff to be resolved.

    While Israeli troops have pulled back from cities previously under Palestinian Authority security and administrative control, they have formed cordons around those cities and have re-entered several cities to block what the Israeli army said were terror attacks in the planning.




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