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Deal Reached for Palestinian Exiles - 2002-05-19

Twelve of 13 Palestinian militants allowed to leave the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem are closer to being given asylum by countries of the European Union. A deal was worked out Sunday by EU leaders meeting in Spain that could get final approval this week.

Spanish Foreign Ministry sources say Spain and Italy will each accept three Palestinians, Ireland and Greece two each, and Portugal and Belgium one each. The destination of the 13th Palestinian is not clear. Cyprus's foreign minister said Sunday that the Cyprus government was unwilling to offer him extended asylum.

The 13 men were among more than 200 Palestinians surrounded by Israeli forces for more than five weeks in the Bethlehem church built on the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.

An EU agreement supported by the Vatican and the U.S., allowed the siege to be lifted and the Palestinians to be moved to Cyprus on May 10. The Spanish news agency EFE reports Israel claims nine of the militants belong to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigades, three are Hamas members, and one is said to be a Palestinian intelligence agent.

Spain holds the EU's rotating presidency until the end of June. Final negotiations on the agreement were conducted by telephone and during a banquet Saturday night in Madrid for Latin American and European delegates concluding a two-day meeting.

A major consideration in the negotiations was the legal status of the Palestinians should Israel carry out a threat to seek their extradition for terrorist activities. Concerned about this, Britain, Germany and France not only refused to offer the men asylum but said they would insist on strict conditions such as constant police surveillance and travel restrictions.

A Spanish foreign ministry official says asylum was offered to the 13 men on humanitarian grounds pending a final decision on their legal status.