Palestinian militants exiled by Israel left their hotel in Cyprus today to board planes to six European Union nations that have agreed to offer them temporary asylum.
The 11 men, expelled under a deal that ended Israel's siege at the Church of the Nativity, boarded a bus outside the beachfront hotel, where they've been confined since their arrival here on May 10, for a short ride to Larnaca airport. They were traveling under tight security by Cypriot anti-terror police, dressed in black or camouflaged uniforms and with dogs sniffing for explosives.
One of the militants, Mohammed Said, was traveling in an ambulance after he was hospitalized overnight with a stomach ulcer.
The Palestinians waved a Palestinian flag from the bus and flashed V-for-victory signs.
After disembarking from the bus, the Palestinians hugged each other and started boarding a Spanish military aircraft and an Italian executive jet, which will take them to their final destinations. One of them, Jihad Jaara, whose leg was broken by an Israeli sniper bullet, was walking on crutches.
A 13th Palestinian, whose identity was not revealed, will stay behind in Cyprus until an EU member accepts him. Under a deal approved Tuesday, Spain and Italy will each take three, Greece and Ireland will each take two, and Portugal and Belgium will each accept one.
The EU said in a statement the 12 would stay in their host nations "on a temporary basis and exclusively on humanitarian grounds."
"Each of the member states ... shall provide the Palestinians it receives with a national permit to enter its territory and stay for a period of up to 12 months," implying that they would be authorized to travel beyond the host country's borders. EU officials did not say what would happen after that period.
Speaking to Spanish radio station RAC 1, EU Middle East envoy Miguel Moratinos said on Tuesday the 13 will be able to work or study in the EU countries that accept them. "They won't be detained, not at all. They will have freedom, although they will be under a certain control," he said without elaborating. Portugal, Italy and Greece said the whereabouts of the militants will be kept secret.
Of the 13, three are members of the Islamic militant group Hamas and most belong to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah group. Hamas and Al-Aqsa are responsible for most of the 60 suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis since the current bout of Palestinian-Israeli violence began nearly 20 months ago.
They were among about 200 Palestinians, including several dozen gunmen, who ran into the Bethlehem church on April 2 to flee Israeli troops advancing as part of a major offensive in the West Bank following a wave of suicide bombings in Israel.
On the West Bank today, Palestinian witnesses say Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian near a checkpoint on the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The army had no immediate comment on the incident.
Israeli forces also arrested a Palestinian woman in the West Bank city of Tulkarem. Israel Radio said she is a suspected suicide bomber.
Also today, the army announced it has blocked off a main intersection in Gaza, cutting off the movement of Palestinians between the northern and southern parts of the Strip in response to mortar bomb attacks on Jewish settlements.
In Jerusalem, a political drama continues to hold center stage.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears on the verge of reshaping his government into a narrower coalition after defiant ultra-Orthodox allies today refused to back an austerity package in a parliamentary vote.
The Israeli parliament voted 65 to 26 for the emergency economic plan aimed at reining in a budget deficit swollen by falling tax revenues and higher defense spending stemming.
The 17 members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party whose opposition to the bill on Monday sparked a political crisis were absent from the vote today. Seven other lawmakers abstained.
The bill needs to pass two more votes at a later date to become law.
Sharon ejected Shas and another ultra-Orthodox party from his coalition two days ago in a move which goes into effect at midnight, leaving a short period for a last-minute change of heart.
But political sources say Sharon is adamant and he appears likely to enlist at least one opposition party into his government, giving it at least a six-seat cushion against any parliamentary bid to topple it.
Opinion polls published in Israeli newspapers today show that Israelis overwhelmingly backed Sharon's stance against Shas. The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper says 70 percent support the ministers' dismissals. The Maariv daily puts the figure at 62 percent.
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