Cyprus prepares to receive 'most wanted' militants

Security was discreet at Cyprus’ main airport today as the island waited for 13 ‘‘Most wanted’’ Palestinian gunmen deported from Israel.

Security was discreet at Cyprus’ main airport today as the island waited for 13 ‘‘Most wanted’’ Palestinian gunmen deported from Israel.

The Palestinians left the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank early today.

They were processed by Israeli authorities at a military base and then put on an RAF flight which took off for Cyprus.

The deportation is part of a deal worked out with the US and the EU to end Israel’s five-week siege of the church.

Under the arrangement, the more than 120 people holed up in the church have been allowed to leave, with 26 Palestinians being banished to Gaza and the 13 militants sent into exile.

Israel is to withdraw its troops from the biblical town, whose residents had been under curfew since April 2.

The negotiations to resolve the crisis came to fruition late last night when the EU found several countries prepared to accept the 13 gunmen.

Earlier, Italy had refused to accept them all, temporarily derailing the deal.

But Cyprus said it would be the first port of exile for the 13 militants.

‘‘Cyprus has agreed to take the 13 people as a temporary measure,’’ Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said in Nicosia.

This morning, a police armoured car patrolled the car park at Larnaca airport, a port city on Cyprus’ southeastern coast.

Armed police officers staked out the airport perimeter, keeping away from the hundreds of people waiting to catch planes or meet arrivals.

The Cypriot authorities appeared anxious to maintain an air of normality at the airport, the main port of entry for the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit the east Mediterranean island every year.

The Palestinians will stay under police guard at a hotel in Larnaca until their countries of exile have been decided, Cassoulides said.

The minister said Foreign Minister Josep Pique of Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, had assured him that ‘‘EU states will take over the 13 persons (to determine) a definite destination early next week.’’

EU foreign ministers are due to decide which countries will host the Palestinians at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.

Countries mentioned as possible hosts for the militants are Spain, Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, Ireland and perhaps Canada.

The RAF plane on which the Palestinians were due to arrive flew to Israel last night from the British sovereign base at Akrotiri in Cyprus.

British military officials said there were two Cypriot policemen on board.

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