Sharon Vows To Press On
With Offensive, Defying Bush

By Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Monday to press ahead with a sweeping military offensive in the West Bank in direct defiance of U.S. demands for a withdrawal.
Battles raged between troops and gunmen in the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus, and Israeli troops fired shots at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where 200 gunmen and civilians are holed up. Each side said the other fired first.
Sharon's comments to parliament put him on collision course with Washington, which provides $3 billion in annual aid to Israel, but he is widely expected to withdraw troops when Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Israel later this week.
In Baghdad, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein said Iraq had suspended its oil exports for one month in protest at Israel's invasion of Palestinian areas on the West Bank. Oil prices have been jittery because of the violence.
Sharon said in an hour-long speech at a stormy session of parliament that he had promised President Bush to try to end the 10-day-old campaign as soon as possible and floated a proposal for peace talks with "moderate" Arab leaders.
But Sharon gave no indication of an imminent pullout, saying Israeli forces must first complete the dismantling of a "terror infrastructure" he said was directed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and was responsible for a wave of suicide attacks on Israelis.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Sharon of wrecking Powell's mission, intended to end violence that has raged since Palestinians began an uprising against Israeli occupation more than 18 months ago.
"Sharon has ended Powell's visit before he comes here," Erekat told Reuters. "He is telling Powell don't come because 'we have finished everything, we are setting up buffer zones, we will continue the occupation and we will not end our operations'."
Sharon said the army's goals "have not been completed and (it) will continue to operate with as much speed as possible until they are completed."
Palestinians have accused Israel of trying to topple the Palestinian Authority and permanently reoccupy Palestinian cities in an offensive in which the army says it has killed at least 200 Palestinians in the past 10 days.
Bush has urged Sharon to withdraw troops "without delay," saying a failure to do so would endanger Powell's mission. Sharon said only that he had told Bush he would accelerate Israel's military moves ahead of any withdrawal.
Jitters over the violence helped push world oil prices higher. The conflict has raised fears of a spread of unrest to other parts of the region, rekindling concerns about a disruption in crude supplies.
Iraqi Oil Minister Amir Muhammed Rasheed said the suspension of the country's exports of about two million barrels per day, about four percent of international oil trade, from Gulf and Turkish ports was implemented at 1000 GMT Monday.
In Bethlehem, the army said gunmen fired and threw grenades from the compound of the Church of the Nativity at soldiers surrounding it and troops fired back after two Israeli border policemen were wounded. The Palestinians denied firing first.
"This is an act of indescribable barbarity. It is a violation of every law of humanity and civilization," said Father David Jaeger, spokesman for custodians of Catholic sites in the Holy Land, who is currently in Rome.
Witnesses said a Palestinian policeman had been shot dead at the compound of the church built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. A fire started in the compound but was quickly put out. Its cause could not be independently verified.
Sources in Jenin refugee camp said Israeli forces had fired about 20 missiles overnight. Fighting continued in Nablus, the largest Palestinian-ruled city in the West Bank.
Palestinians said soldiers raided the Palestinian-ruled village Ashawera, east of Bethlehem, but withdrew from the village of Yatta near the West Bank city of Hebron, leaving a trail of destruction.
Sharon told the Knesset, or parliament, that the military would withdraw to buffer zones between Israel and the West Bank when the offensive eventually ends. He gave no details.
Israel sent troops and tanks into Palestinian cities on March 29 after a suicide bombing that killed 27 people at the start of the Jewish Passover holiday.
Sharon blamed Arafat for the surge of violence in the region. It has penned Arafat up in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"Arafat has established a regime of terror in the territories under his control," Sharon said in an address interrupted repeatedly by Arab Israeli legislators who were then shouted down by other members of the assembly.
"The gangs of murderers have a leader...and the aim is to force us out of here," he said. "The one who sends them is the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat."
Arafat has denied such accusations in the past, and has accused Sharon of using "terror tactics" as Israel tried to put down the Palestinian uprising.
Sharon said he was willing to meet "moderate and responsible" Arab leaders for talks on peace, and would discuss such an initiative with Powell.
Israel has peace treaties with two Arab states, Jordan and Egypt, but both countries have expressed anger at Israel's offensive in the West Bank.
At least 1,228 Palestinians and 420 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began 18 months ago.

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