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Breakthrough in Bethlehem

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 9, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- All but 13 Palestinians in the embattled Church of the Nativity were set to leave the ancient basilica early today as Israel and the Palestinians moved to end a five-week siege.

A group of 26 suspected gunmen was to be transported to the Gaza Strip and about 80 civilians inside would be freed, said Israeli army Capt. Jacob Dallal. Thirteen other militants, due to be deported, would remain in the church for now.

Earlier, after the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis, Yasser Arafat pledged to use his security services to prevent terrorist attacks.

"I gave my orders and directions to all the Palestinian security forces to confront and prevent all terror attacks against Israeli civilians from any Palestinian side or parties," Arafat said on Palestinian TV.

In Washington, President Bush called Arafat's statement an "incredibly positive sign" and urged Israel to consider the consequences of its response to the suicide attackoutside Tel Aviv. "You've got to want peace to achieve peace," Bush said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held an emergency Cabinet meeting early today to consider a response, which could include an offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The bombing Tuesday night was followed 12 hours later by a failed suicide bombing in which a Palestinian set off explosives at a highway intersection near the northern city of Haifa. The assailant was wounded but caused no injuries to bystanders. Fearing the bomber might have additional explosives, Israel's bomb squad used a robotic arm to drag him across the highway before police approached.

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