- JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel
kept up its sweeping military offensive in the West Bank on Friday despite
the arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell on a crucial mission aimed
at ending more than 18 months of bloodshed.
- In defiance of U.S. demands and international pressure
to halt the nearly two-week-old campaign in Palestinian-ruled areas,
tanks and troops maintained a tight grip on most of the West Bank's most
- Powell flew in from Jordan late on Thursday and was due
to hold talks in coming days with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is penned in by Israeli armor
besieging his West Bank compound in Ramallah.
- Taking an upbeat view, Powell told reporters in Amman:
"I have been encouraged by the expressions of support that I have
received as I traveled to the region."
- But Arab leaders have also made no secret of their
that the United States has given its chief Middle East ally too much time
and free rein to press ahead with the West Bank onslaught.
- Powell, adding higher profile to Washington's reactivated
Middle East peacemaking role, will face formidable obstacles in his bid
to forge a lasting cease-fire as a first step toward reviving negotiations
on a final settlement.
- The latest crisis has left Israelis and Palestinians
even more deeply entrenched in a generations-old conflict over their
competing claims on land sacred to both sides.
- Israeli forces have fought house to house, carried out
mass arrests and bombarded cities, towns and refugee camps with tanks and
helicopter gunships since launching an offensive they say is intended to
root out militants behind a wave of suicide attacks.
- But the campaign has also taken a heavy toll on the
population, especially in the main refugee camp in the northern West Bank
city of Jenin.
- There Israeli troops faced bitter resistance until the
last major group of about 40 holdouts -- exhausted and nearly out of
-- surrendered on Thursday.
- PALESTINIANS SPEAK OF
- Residents of the camp have recounted tales of mangled
bodies left littering streets and alleyways, but the accounts have been
impossible to verify independently because the army has declared the area
off-limits to journalists.
- Palestinian officials have accused Israeli forces of
carrying out "massacres," but the army has dismissed such
as pure propaganda, insisting it has done its utmost to avoid civilian
- The army says it has killed at least 200 Palestinians,
most of them militants, since launching its campaign on March 29, but
cabinet member Saeb Erekat put the toll at 500 -- though he gave no
of what he based the estimate on.
- Sharon's resolve to keep up the military campaign has
been hardened by the latest suicide attack, a bus bombing on Wednesday
that killed eight Israelis near the city of Haifa.
- He has promised to expedite the offensive but has
Israeli forces will not pull out of any areas until they complete their
mission which began after a suicide bomber killed 28 people at an Israeli
- "I want to tell you that we intend to continue the
fight against terrorism. I told this...to our American friends,"
said. "I informed them that the operation will continue, and it will
- In what appeared to be a goodwill gesture ahead of
visit, the army said it had pulled out of 24 Palestinian villages. But
troops also launched fresh raids into two West Bank towns and a refugee
- Palestinian officials called the partial withdrawal a
publicity stunt, and Powell said the moves were inadequate.
- Tanks and troops showed no sign of budging from the West
Bank population centers they still hold. They occupy Ramallah, Nablus,
Jenin and Bethlehem, where a standoff between soldiers and armed
continued at the Church of the Nativity.
- The White House softened its approach on Thursday, saying
Bush believed Sharon was "committed to peace." Nevertheless,
Powell was expected to press Sharon face-to-face to speed up the withdrawal
when they meet on Friday morning.
- Israeli leaders are normally careful to avoid alienating
the United States, which provides the Jewish state with $3 billion in
aid, but Sharon has made a career of testing the limits of Washington's
- Powell said he would hold talks with Arafat on Saturday
-- a decision Sharon has called a "tragic mistake." Sharon has
called Arafat an enemy and tried to isolate him by surrounding his
- The Israeli leader even refused to let European Union
envoys visit him there last week, but Israeli officials say they will do
nothing to prevent Powell seeing him.
- The White House, which has repeatedly demanded Arafat
do more to rein in militants, urged Palestinians and Arab nations on
to "step up their responsibilities to denounce terrorism."
- At least 1,263 Palestinians and 446 Israelis have been
killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
- FEARS THAT VIOLENCE COULD SPREAD
- The latest Israeli-Palestinian blood-letting has raised
fears the violence could spread across the region and beyond.
- A truck filled with cooking gas exploded near a Jewish
shrine on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, killing six people,
four German tourists, witnesses said.
- The Tunisian government struggled to dispel suspicions
the explosion at the ancient El Ghriba synagogue was a suicide bombing
prompted by Arab anger at Israel's West Bank offensive.
- An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said however the
blast appeared to be a "deliberate terrorist attack" and not
an accident, as Tunisian authorities maintained.