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Israel starts to pull back

The army begins to exit two West Bank cities as Sharon vows to keep the campaign going.

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

JERUSALEM -- Israeli forces began to withdraw today from two West Bank cities, even as tanks and troops moved deeper into other parts of the West Bank and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to continue the military campaign.

In a speech to parliament Monday, Sharon said that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has "established a regime of terror" and that the 11-day Israeli offensive would carry on until the militants have been "crushed."

But in what appeared to be a concession to U.S. pressure, Israel announced late Monday that troops would begin a phased pullout from the West Bank cities of Qalqilya and Tulkarm. Israeli forces will continue to maintain a cordon around the two cities, the army said.

Later, Palestinian officials reported that Israeli tanks had begun to leave the cities.

"It's a start," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in Washington. "As the president said ... all parties in the Middle East have responsibilities and the president expects all parties to step up to them."

Israel continued to press the fight, and face stiff resistance from Palestinian gunmen, in Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem.

A fire broke out in the compound at the Church of the Nativity -- built on the traditional birthplace of Jesus -- during a gunbattle between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen barricaded inside. A Vatican spokesman called the combat at one of Christianity's holiest sites "an act of indescribable barbarity."

After Sharon's address to the Knesset, President Bush told reporters in an appearance in Tennessee: "I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel. I expect there to be a withdrawal without delay."

In Morocco for the first stop of his diplomatic mission in the region, Secretary of State Colin Powell called for Israel to issue "a clear statement" that it will begin to withdraw from Palestinian territories and "do it now."

Powell received a chilly reception from Morocco's King Mohammed, who asked him why he had not begun his tour in Jerusalem. Powell told the king he had wanted a chance to consult with "European Union and Arab colleagues beforehand."

Powell said later he was encouraged by the Israeli announcement of a partial withdrawal but hoped the move would not be "a little bit of this and a little bit of that," with advances in some areas and pullbacks in others.

Still, he called it an encouraging sign. "I hope it's the beginning of further withdrawals," he added.

In Israel there was a widespread feeling that the Bush administration was quietly acquiescing to a few more days for the Israeli offensive.

"While (Bush) calls for an Israeli pullout "without delay' ... his secretary of state travels to the region in a slow, weeklong glide, even though the Americans know only his physical presence might block "Operation Defensive Shield,' " commentator Chemi Shalev wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv.

Powell plans to arrive in Israel and the Palestinian areas later this week, after visiting Egypt, Spain and Jordan. The State Department did not release his precise travel schedule.

The heaviest fighting in the West Bank raged in the city of Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp where hundreds of gunmen have been battling Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials estimated that more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in Jenin camp. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and one was seriously wounded in the camp Monday.

The armed men "seem to have decided to fight to the last, to make the battle as bloody as possible," said the Israeli commander in the area, Brig. Gen. Eyal Shline. He said that many houses in the camp were booby-trapped and that several men with explosives strapped to their bodies have blown themselves up in suicide attacks. Before daybreak Monday, Israeli attack helicopters began firing missiles at the camp after militants ignored calls to surrender.

In Nablus, smoke rose from the old city, a densely populated maze of stone buildings and narrow streets. Army officials said troops controlled about half the old city, and that dozens of gunmen surrendered Monday.

Tracer fire sent red streaks across the evening sky and several large explosions and long bursts of machine gun fire were heard echoing through the city.

In Bethlehem, an Israeli smoke grenade thrown into the compound during an exchange of fire apparently sparked the blaze at the Church of the Nativity. The fire burned for about an hour in a second-floor meeting hall above the courtyard of St. Katherine's, a Roman Catholic church adjacent to the ancient church.

A Palestinian police officer was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper as he tried to extinguish the fire, a fellow officer said. Israeli troops searched Palestinian firefighters who came to extinguish the blaze. The firefighters were eventually allowed to go to Manger Square and put out the fire by spraying water over the compound's wall.

More than 200 armed Palestinians have been holed up in the compound for seven days. Israeli soldiers have been using loudspeakers to demand that the gunmen surrender, but they have refused.

Israeli officials and senior Franciscans in Rome, whose clerics are among those inside, appeared increasingly at odds. Sharon told parliament that soldiers would surround the church until the gunmen release the clerics, whom he described as hostages, and surrender.

The Franciscans accused Israel of violating a pledge not to attack the church. Church officials said the clerics were not hostages and would remain in the compound.

In Vatican City, Pope John Paul said violence in the Holy Land had escalated to "unimaginable and intolerable levels."

In his speech, during which Israeli Arab and other deputies heckled him, Sharon said he was ready to talk peace with "moderate" Arab leaders, without preconditions.

He did not say whom he thought fit that description, but Arab League chief Amr Moussa dismissed the proposal.

"There is no chance in hell," Moussa said, according to Egypt's official Middle East News agency.

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