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Bethlehem Seige Ends; Palestinian Militants Accept Exile - 2002-05-10

The nearly six-week Israeli military siege of one of Christianity's holiest shrines has ended peacefully. The drama concluded Friday when a group of the most wanted Palestinian militants, who had taken refuge in the Church of the Nativity, were sent into exile.

Thirteen suspected gunmen wanted by Israel for planning and launching terror attacks against citizens of the Jewish state were the first to leave the church.

They were flown on a British military aircraft to Cyprus, where they await a decision by the European Union on which countries will accept them into exile.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Sofer, has said the arrangement may not have been perfect, but it did eventually end the crisis. "Perhaps it would have been better had these people been taken to trial. However, in order to respect the sanctity of the holy shrine which they took over and to bring an end to this stand-off, we were ready to accept the compromise in order to move forward into the political process, so necessary to the Middle East," he said.

The Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat welcomed an end to the crisis, calling it an important step. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, however, cautioned those countries that give refugee to the 13 Palestinian militants not to allow them to continue their subversive activities.

"I think the countries themselves will have to take care because these are people who are engaged in terror and killing. So we presume the countries who will give shelter to those people will do the necessary things so that they will not create some troubles, somehow," Mr. Peres said.

Twenty-six other militants who had been hiding in the church were sent to the Gaza Strip, where they received a hero's welcome.

More than 80 civilians and clerics were also set free.

Journalists were then invited by the Israeli army to inspect the damage to the sanctuary and to view a stockpile of weapons that Palestinians had carried into the church.

The grotto associated with Jesus' birth was not damaged during the long ordeal.