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Palestinian Militants in Cyprus to Begin Onward Journey - 2002-05-21

The European Union says a Spanish military aircraft will fly out of Cyprus Wednesday with 12 of the 13 Palestinian militants who were freed nearly two weeks ago from Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity after a five-and-a-half-week Israeli siege. The 12 men will be dispersed among six EU countries, while the 13th will remain in Cyprus until a country is found to host him.

The EU agreed to take the 13 men, who are regarded as dangerous by Israel, as part of a deal it brokered earlier this month to end the siege of the church. That deal was regarded as a diplomatic triumph for the 15-nation bloc, which has been striving to play a bigger role in Middle East peacemaking.

But after taking ten days to decide which countries should receive which of the 13 militants, the EU finds its image tarnished by what diplomats say was unseemly wrangling among its member states.

EU foreign ministers finally hammered out an agreement on Sunday on how many of the militants each country would take, but details were not worked out until Monday night.

The men have been staying at a beachfront hotel in Cyprus under heavy guard for the past 11 days, but Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou says everything is now set for all but one of them to begin the last leg of their journey into exile.

"They will be distributed to a number of countries in the European Union, beginning [Wednesday]," said Mr. Papandreou. "Two will be left in Athens, then three in Rome, another three in Madrid, and the rest will be taken to Portugal, Ireland and Belgium, one being left in Cyprus. This will be the distribution, and this is one thing we have done after coordinating amongst ourselves."

Ireland will host two of the exiled militants while Portugal and Belgium will receive one each.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Antonio Martins da Cruz criticized countries that refused to take in any of the militants, saying they lacked solidarity with their neighbors.

Diplomats in Brussels say some EU countries were reluctant to admit the men because Israel regards them as terrorists and may eventually seek to extradite them.

The militants will be given 12-month temporary residence permits in their countries of destination. They will be provided with housing and work permits but will not be allowed to travel outside their host countries. The EU says the men will be put under police surveillance for their own protection.