May 10, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP)--The Church of the Nativity reeked of urine, dirty dishes were piled up on an altar and filthy blankets strewn across the ancient stone floor, yet the basilica marking Jesus' traditional birthplace emerged largely unscathed Friday from a 39-day standoff between Israel and Palestinian gunmen.

Thirteen of the militiamen who had been holed up inside were flown into European exile, and 26 were released into the Gaza Strip where they were given a raucous welcome. Seventy-three Palestinian policemen and civilians were set free.

The end to the siege paved the way for an Israeli troop pullback from Bethlehem that began Friday evening, effectively ending the military offensive Israel launched March 29 against Palestinian militias in the West Bank.

Yet Israeli forces amassed on the border with the Gaza Strip, apparently preparing for a military strike in retaliation for a Hamas suicide bombing earlier this week that killed 15 Israelis. The leadership of the Islamic militant group is based in Gaza, which was spared during last month's offensive.

U.S. President George W. Bush said the end of the Bethlehem siege was a welcome sign and ``should advance the prospects for resuming a political peace process.''

The day's events in Bethlehem began shortly before 7 a.m. (0400 GMT), when the first of the gunmen walked through the low-slug Gate of Humility, the main door of the 4th century basilica. The others followed one-by-one, emerging into the hazy sunlight of Manger Square. Some waved or flashed victory signs, and one dropped to the ground, kneeling in Muslim prayer. Two men were carried out on stretchers.

By mid-morning, all Palestinians had left the church, but the standoff was not over yet. Ten foreign activists who had slipped into the church May 2 in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians, refused to come out, demanding to be accompanied by a lawyer and insisting to be allowed to hold a news conference. By mid-afternoon, Israeli riot police entered the compound and removed the 10 by force, with the approval of exasperated priests. The 10, including four Americans, were detained ahead of deportation.

Journalists touring the basilica, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, saw two wooden altars in the Armenian section and a marble baptismal covered with piles of leftover food and dirty dishes.

The stone floor was strewn with dirty blankets and mattresses, lighters, sunglasses, a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of aftershave, plastic bags, cigarette butts, a comb and large cooking pots. A metal stove and gas canisters for cooking stood to one side of the central aisle.

The panes of several arched windows near the ceiling were broken, but there appeared to be no other damage. A 12th century mosaic near the ceiling, which one priest had said was hit by bullets appeared in good condition. A Franciscan study hall next to the church was gutted by fire - Israel and the Palestinians had accused each other of sparking the flames - and a statue of the Virgin Mary was hit by a bullet.

The small birth grotto, which is a few steps below the basilica, was in pristine condition. Priests said some of the gunmen and foreigners had initially slept there because it was the warmest spot, but eventually agreed to leave so clergy could conduct daily services there.

One priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that the foreigners had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol.

A Bethlehem Christian, 18-year-old Sandy Shaheen, was in tears as she looked at the trashed interior of the basilica. ``This is the place where Jesus was born. I can't believe this is the house of God, just look at it,'' said Shaheen who worships at the Church of the Nativity every Sunday.

Father Nicholas, a Franciscan priest from Mexico, denied Israeli claims that the several dozen nuns and priests who remained in the compound during the standoff were hostages. ``We were there by choice,'' Nicholas said. Priests and nuns have said they remained to protect the sanctity of the site.

Father Nicholas said the gunmen kept their weapons with them at all times, and in the first days took candelabras, icons and candles and ``anything that looked like gold.'' Father Nicholas said some of the valuables were later returned.

In the Armenian section, reporters saw a cupboard filled with food - more than 20 bags of lentils and rice, cans of beans and cooking oil. For extended periods during the siege, the gunmen had said food was running low, and that those in the church subsisted on one meal a day. Some said they had resorted to making soup from lemon leaves growing in the courtyard. It was not clear whether those accounts were misleading, or whether Israel's food supplies increased in the last days.

Israeli police and soldiers swept the church and said they found 40 explosive devices, several booby-trapped. However, Israeli officials offered little detail.

In their joy over having control over the shrine again, Greek and Franciscan priests conducted a service, and bells were pealing for several minutes. At around sundown Friday, Israeli troops and armored vehicles left Manger Square, signaling the beginning of the Israeli troop pullback. Military officials said soldiers expected to complete the withdrawal within several hours.

The residents of Bethlehem had been confined to an around-the-clock curfew during Israel's 39-day occupation of the city. Hundreds of Palestinians thronged the square after the departure of the Israeli troops, eager to catch up on each other's lives.

The 13 Palestinian deportees, meanwhile, were flown to Cyprus, a first stopover to exile in various European countries. Whisked by Cypriot riot police to the three-star Flamingo Hotel in Larnaca.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said the Palestinians will stay under police guard at the hotel until their countries of exile are chosen at a meeting of EU foreign ministers early next week.

The group of 26 militiamen was given a heroes' welcome in Gaza City and fired assault rifles in the air to acknowledge cheers from the crowds lining the streets. As they emerged from their bus, they kissed the ground and knelt in prayer. ``They are heroes. I hope that together, we can celebrate our victory,'' said Ibrahim Hassouna, a bystander who had come to greet the militiamen.

Friday's deal ended a week of cliffhanger negotiations, with intense involvement by the United States, the Vatican and the EU.

The standoff began on April 2, as more than 200 Palestinians, including wanted militants, policemen and civilians, ran into the church fleeing advancing Israeli troops.

Among the 13 deportees were nine members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and three members of the Islamic militant Hamas group. The 13th is Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian intelligence chief in Bethlehem.

Arafat came under scathing criticism from Fatah and Hamas for approving the deportations. Israel has expelled hundreds of Palestinian activists since the 1967 Mideast war, but always in a unilateral move.

Arafat's senior adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, defended the Palestinian leader, saying he had made the best possible deal. ``President Arafat personally stressed that no Palestinian was to be turned over to the Israeli government ... and this is what happened,'' Abu Rdeneh said.

Israeli officials have also come under fire at home for allowing the gunmen to slip away. Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisted that justice had been served. ``I think we achieved all our goals and the innocent people, the clergy and the priests who were held there were released intact,'' Gissin told AP.

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