- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

An unusual U.S. diplomatic campaign to find a country that would accept 13 Palestinian militants holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity yesterday failed to bring the 37-day standoff to an end.
After Italy officially refused to take in the individuals, Washington put its hopes on the European Union. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke by telephone with the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, for the second time in two days and also discussed the issue with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Israel offered late yesterday to release everyone in the church except the 13 militants who are on its most-wanted list. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer made the proposal in a telephone conversation with Mr. Solana.
Mr. Ben Eliezer "asked Solana to intervene with the European countries for them to accept to take [the 13 militants] in," a Defense Ministry spokesman said, quoted by Agence France-Presse. "From the Israeli point of view, nothing is preventing the departure of the other Palestinians."
The United States remained secretive about its diplomatic effort, saying only that it was working with several parties and "all kinds of people" to resolve the crisis, but there were many last-minute issues to deal with.
The State Department acknowledged it was working with several European officials on the matter, although it would not specify what countries were being considered as the militants' exile destinations.
"We keep in touch with the Europeans in a variety of ways," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "We are looking to work this out. We are looking for people to play a helpful role in helping resolve the situation in Bethlehem."
U.S. officials have suggested that the proposal that Italy accept the Palestinians was not conveyed to the government in Rome by Italian representatives on the ground. Italy has said it had been kept in the dark until the idea was made public.
In spite of Mr. Powell's effort to persuade Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to take in the militants during two phone calls on Tuesday, Mr. Berlusconi said yesterday the matter should be addressed by the EU rather than a single country.
"I believe the problem can be examined at European level," he told reporters in Rome. "Europe could consider a solution which need not involve only one country."
Mr. Berlusconi, who is also Italy's foreign minister, said the problem was also "judicial" and "there is no way we can imprison people who have committed no crime in our country."
"I'm sorry not to be able to give a positive response to the United States," he said. "But unfortunately, notwithstanding the closeness which I continue to have with the U.S. administration, we could not do otherwise. Nobody can do the impossible."
U.S. officials interpreted Mr. Berlusconi's statement as not necessarily ruling out the accepting of some of the Palestinians if other EU countries agreed to do the same.
Spain also said it was not ready to accept the militants.
"We are trying to find a solution to the problem but at the present time it cannot be said that Spain will take in people sheltered within the church," Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said at a news conference where he appeared with his Canadian counterpart, Jean Chretien.


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