Israeli Forces Leave Ramallah,
Besiege Arafat HQ

By Rawhi Abeidoh

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel withdrew its forces from most of the West Bank city of Ramallah overnight but said it would continue to besiege Yasser Arafat's compound until suspected assassins holed up inside were handed over.
Israeli forces stormed into West Bank towns and refugee camps three weeks ago to rout militants responsible for suicide bombings in Israel, sparking fierce fighting and devastation in some areas which provoked an international outcry.
The Israeli army said its forces had pulled out of all of Ramallah except Arafat's headquarters and that troops would complete a withdrawal from the West Bank city of Nablus later on Sunday. Troops would encircle the city to enforce a tight closure.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israeli forces would stay put outside Arafat's compound until three people it suspects of assassinating a cabinet minister last year and a suspected arms smuggler were extradited to Israel.
"We are demanding these people be extradited so they can be put on trial," Ben-Eliezer said. Israel also wants Arafat's chief financial officer Fuad Shubaki, who it suspects of smuggling arms from Iran into the Palestinian territories.
He declined to comment in an interview with Israel Radio on whether Israel would storm the compound if the standoff continued saying only that Israel would "find a way that will be acceptable."
Palestinians have rejected extraditing the men but Arafat offered Friday to try the suspects in a Palestinian court.
Witnesses said tanks had departed from three strategic points in the center, north and western parts of Nablus while other army vehicles had quit the nearby Balata refugee camp.
The Israeli government promised Saturday to cooperate with a U.N. Security Council mission to probe its crushing assault on the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of the fiercest battles of Israel's West Bank offensive.
The army said Saturday it had left Jenin and the camp, but remained deployed around them to keep "terrorists" from slipping out into Israel, and it slapped a curfew on three villages close to the "Green Line" boundary.
International officials have urged Israel to lift curfews where fighting has stopped to ease access for relief agencies and help civilians start to get on with their lives.
The army vacated two other West Bank towns last week but continues to encircle them. The same strategy would apply to further withdrawals, with the option of renewed raids to catch militants who slipped through the cracks, Israel says.
Palestinian leaders have ruled out any cease-fire without a total army withdrawal from towns that obtained autonomy under interim peace deals in the 1990s, and an end to encirclements which have paralyzed daily life there.
A cease-fire could lead to renewed negotiations on a permanent peace settlement. Secretary of State Colin Powell spent a week in the region this month trying in vain to broker a truce but plans to return at an unspecified date.
President Bush said Israel must press ahead with its withdrawal from Palestinian cities but did not repeat earlier demands for an immediate end to its offensive.
"All parties must realize that the only long-term solution is for two states -- Israel and Palestine -- to live side by side in security and peace. This will require hard choices and real leadership by Israelis and Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Palestinians said they hoped the U.N. Security Council's unanimous decision Friday to send a "fact-finding" team to the Jenin camp could spawn an international criminal trial of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other senior figures.
"We have nothing to hide and we will gladly cooperate with this U.N. inquiry," Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said after the United States forced a dilution of an initial Council resolution demanding an "investigation" into a "massacre."
Israel has vigorously denied Palestinian allegations of a massacre in Jenin camp, saying the vast majority of casualties were gunmen who battled with Israeli troops by using civilians as "human shields" and booby-trapping their homes.
Watching residents scrabble through rubble in the camp's bombed and bulldozed main square for bodies and possessions, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the region, William Burns, called Jenin a "terrible human tragedy."
A Jenin hospital official said the body count in the refugee camp had risen to 39 but added that it could climb to between 200 and 400. Israel says about 70 Palestinians died, mostly fighters. Twenty-three Israeli troops were killed in Jenin.
"We have found 38 (Palestinian) bodies so far -- 11 in the first days of the fighting. The assessment is that there are a few dozen more bodies under the rubble," an army spokesman said.
The army is also locked in a stalemate with Palestinian militants holed up with more than 200 policemen and civilians inside Bethlehem's fabled Church of the Nativity, vowing not to vacate the town until the wanted gunmen surrender.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said earlier high-level talks involving European, U.S. and Vatican officials on solving the standoff at one of Christianity's holiest sites were going on.
At least 1,289 Palestinians and 453 Israelis have died since the Palestinian uprising in pursuit of a state erupted 18 months ago after talks on a permanent peace accord collapsed.

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