High winds force Obama to drive, not fly to Bethlehem

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President Barack Obama. AP FILE PHOTO

JERUSALEM – A fierce sandstorm hit Jerusalem Friday, forcing US President Barack Obama to travel by motorcade to the West Bank city of Bethlehem rather than by helicopter as scheduled, Israeli police said.

What started out as a sunny but windy morning with few clouds in the sky quickly deteriorated into a sandstorm with gale-force winds buffeting the city and forcing a last-minute change in the president’s plans.

“The American president’s convoy of cars just left for Bethlehem,” police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP, saying several major roads from central Jerusalem to Bethlehem would be closed for security reasons.

She said the stormy weather precluded flying, with Obama likely to drive directly from Bethlehem to Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv from where he is scheduled to depart for Jordan on Air Force One at 1315 GMT.

“Due to the weather which will not allow flying, the president may go directly from Bethlehem to Ben Gurion airport,” she said.

An AFP correspondent travelling with the motorcade said it left the King David Hotel at 1140 GMT for the brief drive to Bethlehem which lies seven kilometres (just over four miles) to the south.

Meanwhile, at the airport, officials cancelled a formal departure ceremony, saying only a small ceremony would be held with a handful of top dignitaries.

An AFP correspondent at the airport reported very high winds and zero visibility, saying security tents and barriers on the tarmac for press and visitors coming to attend the departure ceremony were in danger of flying away.

Obama was on Friday wrapping up a historic three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, his first since becoming president.

In the morning, he visited the graves of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, and paid his respects at the grave of the late Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin before visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

After a brief late-morning meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he had been scheduled for a quick hop to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Christ.

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