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EU agrees on plan for 'Bethlehem 13'

By GARETH HARDING, UPI Europe Correspondent

BRUSSELS, May 21 (UPI) -- The European Union on Tuesday agreed on how to divvy up the 13 Palestinian militants stuck in Cyprus as a result of the deal to end the Israeli siege on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

After 39 days inside the church, followed by 11 days at a beachside hotel in Larnaca, 12 of the 13 men are to be flown to six European destinations Wednesday. A 13th Palestinian is to remain on the Mediterranean island temporarily.

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The deal struck by EU diplomats meeting on the Greek island of Mykonos on Monday calls for Spain and Italy each to take three exiles, Greece and Ireland each to host two, while Belgium and Portugal will take one apiece.

A Spanish plane was to arrive in Cyprus Tuesday and drop off five of the passengers in Greece and Italy on its the way back to Madrid. The remaining exiles are to be picked up by their host countries in the Spanish capital.

Israel describes the men as "senior terrorists" and has hinted it will seek their extradition. However, one of the "Bethlehem 13," intelligence chief Abdullah Daoud told the Guardian Newspaper the host countries have nothing to fear.

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"The Palestinians are not the Taliban. They are not al Qaida," Daoud said. "We are normal, civilized people. We will respect the law in each of those states."

The 13 men are to have "temporary refugee" status and to be reunited with their families at a later date. The will not be able to leave their host country, however, and likely will remain under the watchful eye of police.

The Bethlehem church siege ended May 10 under an agreement brokered by the EU. Spain, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the 15-member club, said: "Without the intervention of the European Union, the Church of the Nativity would still be under siege today and Israeli troops would still be on the streets of Bethlehem."

However, the burden sharing agreement was not easy to reach as the EU states argued among themselves about how to accommodate the Palestinians.

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