Under the deal brokered by European intermediaries, 13 of the church’s current occupants would be flown to Cyprus and then dispersed throughout several European Union countries. The 13 men are suspected militants on Israel’s most wanted list.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told Reuters Thursday he expected the impasse at the church to be resolved “in the coming hours.”
Cyprus Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides said he hoped the militants would be transported “as soon as possible,” but did not say when he expected the group to leave Bethlehem. He said negotiators were still ironing out the details.
Several groups of civilians and policemen have been allowed to leave the church in the past few weeks, but recent attempts to broker an end to the standoff were snagged on the issue of what to do with the 13 suspected militants. An agreement was reportedly close early Thursday and buses even pulled into Manger Square, presumably to transport people away from the church. But the buses left empty hours later and troops returned to their positions, witnesses said.
Of the church’s 110 other current occupants, 26 are suspected gunmen and 80 are believed to be civilians. It is expected that the civilians will be freed and the gunmen transported to a jail in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, Israeli army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal told the Associated Press.
The standoff at the church began April 2 when some 200 Palestinians hid in the building to escape invading Israeli troops. Since then, Israeli soldiers and armored vehicles have taken up positions outside the shrine, which Christians recognize as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.