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SLUG: 2-289500 Israel / Palestinians









INTRO: Palestinian sources say an agreement has been reached to end the Israeli military siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. V-O-A Correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Jerusalem.

TEXT: The Palestinians say 13 militants inside the church will to go into exile and another 26 will be sent to the Gaza Strip in a deal that will end the standoff at the basilica.

An Israeli military spokesman says the two sides are very close, but details are still being finalized. Israeli army officials in Bethlehem say they expect the siege to be lifted very soon.

The agreement was made possible when Israel dropped its demand that all the militants either face trial in the Jewish state or be sent abroad. The Palestinians compromised by agreeing that some of the men will be exiled.

The mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, says the Palestinians have paid a high price for the agreement to end the siege.

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The city has been taken as a hostage because of the Church of the Nativity. I think that the deal, which was ended already and is on its way to be implemented, the Palestinian side would like to say they have paid a heavy price for that.

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The agreement to end the standoff would clear the way for Israeli troops and tanks to withdraw from Bethlehem, which is the last major West Bank city to be re-occupied after a major military offensive that followed a series of Palestinian suicide attacks.

U-S and European diplomats have been involved in the negotiations that would send some Palestinians into exile while others would face trial in Palestinian courts.

About 80 people inside the church, including Christian clerics and civilians, would be set free immediately.

Israeli soldiers surrounded the Church of the Nativity in early April after about 200 people, including Palestinian gunmen, took refuge in the shrine when Israeli troops entered Bethlehem.

The church is built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.

Progress in Bethlehem coincided with an incursion by Israeli tanks and soldiers into the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Witnesses say troops searched houses and mosques for wanted militants.

The army says the purpose of the raid was to stop planned suicide bombings and destroy what the military calls "terrorist infrastructure." (Signed)


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