- BETHLEHEM (Reuters) - Efforts
to end a 36-day-old armed standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity
stalled on Tuesday when Italy refused to accept 13 Palestinian militants
holed up inside one of Christianity's holiest shrines.
- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, in talks brokered
by U.S. and European Union officials, had reached an agreement under which
the gunmen on Israel's wanted list would have been sent to Egypt and then
into exile in Italy.
- But Italy said it had been kept in the dark and could
not consider accepting the men for now, blocking a deal that would have
given Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a boost in talks with President
- Under the agreement, another 26 militants sheltering
inside the church were to be transferred to the Gaza Strip. Both groups
would be under U.S. escort, diplomats said.
- But as night fell, hopes for a quick resolution faded.
- "We have reached an understanding to resolve the
Church of the Nativity crisis," Israeli army spokesman Olivier Rafowicz
told reporters in Bethlehem. "The implementation is being delayed
because no country is willing to accept the terrorists."
- Palestinian officials held out hope that a solution could
be found to end the standoff, a source of alarm for the Christian world,
which reveres the site of the Church of the Nativity as the birthplace
of Jesus Christ.
- "We hope the Israeli troops will leave and never
return," said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser.
- The deal, which took shape while Sharon was in Washington
waging a diplomatic assault against Yasser Arafat, would end the last major
standoff of Israel's West Bank offensive, begun on March 29 after a wave
of Palestinian suicide attacks.
- It would also pave the way for Israeli forces to withdraw
from Bethlehem, the last city still occupied after the campaign.
- FULL WITHDRAWAL DEMANDED
- Bush has demanded a full withdrawal from Palestinian-ruled
areas -- an Arab condition for attending a peace conference that world
powers want held to seek an end to a 19-month-old Palestinian uprising
against Israeli occupation.
- But in Rome, the Foreign Ministry released a terse statement
saying Italy had not received any official request to grant exile status
to Palestinians "accused of acts of terrorism."
- "The possibility of receiving Palestinian citizens
in Italy has never been raised (officially) and therefore at the current
state of affairs it cannot be considered," the statement said.
- It confirmed what a senior government official had told
Reuters earlier -- Italy was bitter that it had been kept in the dark by
the United States and Britain and felt it had been steamrollered into playing
- "We were treated in an arrogant and intolerable
way," the official said.
- A source familiar with the talks said efforts were still
under way to win Italy's cooperation. There was no word of any other country
willing to step in and accept the militants.
- The deal hit another snag over weapons belonging to Palestinian
security men who sought refuge in the church along with more than 100 clerics
and other civilians when invading Israeli forces chased militants into
the compound. The security men were asking for written assurances before
handing their weapons in to the Israelis, that they would be returned.
- CONFLICTING VERSIONS
- Bethlehem Governor Mohammed al-Madani said from inside
the church that the militants being sent to Gaza would not be tried. But
diplomats said a decision had not been taken on their fate.
- Militant groups behind attacks that have killed scores
of Israelis have made clear their opposition to the deportation of their
members in the church. Relatives of some wept as they kept vigil at Manger
Square, saying the men should not be exiled.
- In preparation for lifting their siege, soldiers came
down from the rooftops surrounding the church, bringing down floodlights
that had been hung there. They also dismantled a crane overlooking the
- Troops set up metal detectors outside the church to check
whether those departing were carrying weapons. But there were no immediate
signs that the soldiers were pulling out.
- Progress toward ending the siege coincided with an incursion
by Israeli tanks in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, where the army said
it had arrested 30 wanted militants.
- Israeli forces also launched a raid into the Rafah refugee
camp in Gaza. Witnesses said troops had shot dead a 17-year-old youth.
The army said it was searching for arms smuggling tunnels and had shot
at Palestinians who had fired on them first.
- In Washington, Sharon called for a restructuring of the
Palestinian Authority to sideline President Yasser Arafat.
- Sharon said Israel would be able to implement a peace
plan -- details of which he did not disclose -- only if the Palestinian
Authority was revamped and Palestinian "violence, terrorism and incitement"
- He was set to repeat this in talks Tuesday with Bush.
- At least 1,345 Palestinians and 459 Israelis have been
killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.