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Bethlehem church standoff ends

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, May 10 (UPI) -- More than 100 Palestinians paraded out of the Church of the Nativity Friday-- some directly into exile -- marking an end to an impasse during which Israeli troops surrounded the site for more than five weeks.

By Friday afternoon, some 38 days after the standoff began, Israeli troops were hurriedly packing equipment to withdraw from the area in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem. Israel had entered the area as part of Operation Defensive Shield, actions taken to wreck what the Israeli defined as "terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank.

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More than 200 Palestinians sought refuge in the church April 2. Many had left the building during the ensuing weeks but some 123 remained. Thirteen of the men who emerged Friday were wanted by Israel in connection with killings and shooting at civilians and were flown to Cyprus. European officials were to decide next week as to where the militants will be exiled.

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Another 26 were bused to the Gaza Strip where they were received as "heroes" and promised they would not be imprisoned. The rest of the Palestinians were to be released.

The last 10 non-church personnel in the Church of the Nativity were foreign pro-Palestinian activists, who had recently sneaked into the building. They surrendered Friday to Israeli police and were to be deported. The 10 included four U.S. citizens, two Swedes, one Canadian, one Dane, one Briton and one Irish person.

The Palestinians began leaving the church at 7 a.m., accompanied by the Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, a Catholic priest on staff at the church, which is reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus. The Palestinians passed through metal detectors to check for weapons.

Some made victory signs with their hands as they emerged, some kissed the priests, and some shook Israeli soldiers' hands before boarding buses. One man knelt and prayed. Female relatives of the men stood on a nearby roof and waved to their loved ones.

Within four hours all the Palestinians left the church, where they had stayed for 38 days.

Palestinian officials searched the church and found some 90 weapons, including assault rifles, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman said. Israelis who later made their own search found three more guns, a police source told United Press International.

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Authorities were still assessing damage to the church, in which at least one fire broke out during the siege and numerous windows were broken. Several walls showed the pockmarks from gunfire. The Greek Orthodox section of the church seemed to one visitor dirty and neglected, but there were no immediate signs of damage.

A breakthrough on the siege seemed to be the result of a concerted U.S. and EU effort to resolve the impasse. Cyprus agreed to temporarily host the 13 Palestinian militants, which later will likely be split between several European countries.

The Cyprus News Agency quoted Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kassoulides as saying Nicosia "has played a role, behind the scenes, in the effort to end the siege of the Church of the Nativity." He said the agreement was reached Thursday night.

The Cypriot minister said the agreement was reached in deliberations among EU envoy Javier Solana, whom Israel asked to help resolve the impasse, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the EU's Middle East peace envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos as well as U.S., British, Israeli and the Palestinian Authority officials.

A well-informed source who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity said that Italy, Spain and Greece have agreed to take some of the militants.

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Israeli Brig. Gen. Eival Giladi, who briefed reporters in Bethlehem, said the deportees will not be under arrest, but will face restrictions. Their return to the West Bank requires Israel's consent, he added.

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(With reporting by Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza.)

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