The five-week long stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has ended with 13 Palestinian militants headed temporarily to Cyprus. But their final destination will cost the EU a few days of tense negotiations.
Out in the open and into the unknown
Dozens of haggard-looking Palestinian militants and civilians emerged from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the early hours of Friday morning following the completion of an European-brokered agreement between the group and the Israeli army.
After many snags and last-minute changes to plans, European diplomats finally managed to close the deal to end the five-week armed stand-off at one of Christianity’s holiest shrines.
10. Mai 2002: Nach 39 Tagen geht die Belagerung der Geburtskirche in Bethlehem durch israelische Truppen zu Ende. Die ersten der eingeschlossenen Palästinenser verlassen die Kirche
Amid heavily armed Israeli troops surrounding the historic Manger Square and camera crews from around the world filming on the sidelines, the first 13 men- "the most wanted" on Israel’s list of top terrorists – filed out of the building, accompanied by priests.
The 13 men were whisked away in a waiting bus to the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, from where a British military aircraft will fly them to Cyprus, the first stop in their exile.
The breakthrough was achieved after Cyprus agreed to give temporary sanctuary to the 13 "senior terrorists" until their final place of exile is determined.
Twenty-six other militants are to be sent for trial in Gaza, while 85 Palestinian civilians and international activists are to be set free.
Tough days ahead for the EU
But though much of the Christian world and the relatives of the Palestinians’ heave a sigh of relief as the nerve-wrecking drama finally draws to a close, the EU now has to brace itself for a round of tough negotiations and debates to decide the final destination of the 13 Palestinian militants.
The five-week stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem began on April 2, when Palestinian militants burst into the church to escape the Israeli troops that had reoccupied the city during the West Bank offensive.
Trapped inside with around 40 militants were dozens of clergymen, church workers, Palestinian security men and peace activists.
Both US and European negotiators took part in the negotiations to end the standoff. The EU managed to break the deadlock earlier this week and score a minor diplomatic victory when it offered to scatter the Palestinian militants in exile across several European countries.
But that triumph was short-lived, as confusion reigned over which EU country would actually accept the militants.
Rome says no to men "accused of grave crimes"
First on the table was Italy. But Rome - which has witnessed attacks by Palestinian guerrillas in the past in the 1980s - stalled the deal by complaining that it had been kept in the dark about plans to transfer the militants.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi twice on Tuesday to try to persuade him to accept the men, but official sources said that he failed to make much headway.
"Italy has no intention of hosting Palestinians accused of terrorism...How could we take in Palestinians accused of grave terrorist acts who have not been tried or sentenced and would be free men here?" Berlusconi told the weekly magazine Panorama on Thursday.
Berlusconi further said, "it is no coincidence that all European countries are rejecting them. No one can put them in jail or grant them asylum after having seen their curricula."
Greece, Italy, Spain, Austria, Canada?
Conflicting reports have emerged about which EU states will be involved in offering refuge to the militants, following Italy's refusal.
One EU diplomatic source told Reuters that the militants would be distributed among three EU countries – Italy, Spain and Greece – as well as Canada. But Canada later denied that it would take in any of the 13, or that it had even been asked to.
There was also talk of Austria and Luxembourg as possible host countries.
Another EU diplomatic source was reported to have said that once in Europe, the 13 wanted militants would not be held in custody, but set free.
Cyprus anxiously waiting for next EU orders
What’s certain for now is that the 13 men will be flown to Cyprus, where they will be placed under guard at a hotel in the popular coastal resort of Larnaca.
Cypriot authorities will be intently following the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in Monday, where diplomats are expected to take a final decision on the distribution of the militants in the EU states.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides said the Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, who holds the current Presidency of the EU, had assured that EU countries would take over the militants and forward them on to final destinations "early next week."
After giving themselves a tight deadline, Brussels is also faced with sorting out legal problems regarding the Palestinians' fate, before finding destination countries.