Sharon says Israel to 'expedite' end of offensive
(CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a statement Saturday that his military would expedite an end to its offensive in the West Bank after repeated U.S. and international demands for a withdrawal.
President Bush called Sharon on Saturday, a few hours after Bush urged Israel to withdraw its troops "without delay." In a statement released late Saturday as heavy fighting continued in the West Bank, Sharon said Israel was conscious of the U.S. desire to have Israel end its offensive as quickly as possible.
The statement did not specify when an Israeli pullout might begin. Nor did it indicate whether Israeli troops would be withdrawn from all six Palestinian towns they occupy.
A senior White House official said Bush left the timetable for the withdrawal up to Israel. But Bush told Sharon that "Israel needed to defuse the situation so that diplomacy can work," the official said.
The official said Sharon then agreed to wrap up the offensive "as expeditiously as possible."
Appearing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier Saturday, Bush also repeated his demand that Palestinian leaders immediately crack down on terrorism.
"We agree that the Palestinian leadership must order an immediate and effective cease-fire and crackdown on terrorists, and we agree that Israel should halt incursions in the Palestinian-controlled areas and begin to withdraw without delay from those cities it has recently occupied." (Full story)
Israel says the goal of its offensive, which began March 29, is to eliminate the ability of terrorist groups to target Israeli civilians by capturing the terrorists' weapons and destroying their bomb-making capability.
Earlier Saturday, Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz said there were no immediate plans to heed Bush's call for a withdrawal.
"We are going to continue our operation until we are going to achieve the goals of this operation," Halutz said. However, a senior Israeli political source told CNN that Israel "has no intention to stay in the Palestinian territories or to reoccupy them."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to travel to the region on Sunday. Powell said there were no immediate plans for him to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, although he did not rule out the possibility. (Full story)
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat welcomed Powell's visit, but said, "If Mr. Powell comes here and he doesn't want to meet President Arafat, I don't think he will meet any Palestinian officials."
Fresh fighting reported in Nablus, Jenin
Arafat has been holed up in his Ramallah compound for more than a week, surrounded by Israeli troops.
Palestinian sources said the Israeli army was shelling buildings and perimeter walls Saturday night at Arafat's compound. Four Palestinians were wounded in the attacks, one of them critically, said Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rudeineh, who is in the compound.
Heavy fighting broke out Saturday in Nablus, the West Bank's largest city. Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships battled Palestinian gunmen and conducted house-to-house searches, according to Palestinian residents and local officials.
Five Palestinians were killed and 50 were wounded in overnight fighting with Israeli forces in the city, Palestinian medical sources said. (Full story)
In Jenin, three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting late Friday and overnight, the Israeli army said. Palestinian sources said Israeli troops bulldozed dozens of houses in a refuge camp in Jenin on Saturday. The Palestinians said Israeli tanks and helicopters also fired into the camp.
In a separate incident near Jenin, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian who was wearing an explosive belt, the Israel Defense Forces said.
Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes and artillery hit suspected Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon in response to shelling near Ghajar village, in Israeli-occupied territory at the foot of the Golan Heights, Lebanese security forces said. Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack.
The security officials said five mortar rounds hit an Israeli post near the village.
The Israeli incursion has prompted demonstrations around the Arab world, in New York and on Saturday, in France.
Up to 18,000 pro-Palestinian activists marched through Paris on Saturday as part of a series of demonstrations across the country condemning the surge of violence in the Middle East. The rally was billed as one of the largest demonstrations ever in France in support of Palestinians.
Similar pro-Palestinian marches were taking place in the cities of Grenoble, Pau, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Orleans and Rennes.
On Friday, between 1,800 and 2,000 pro-Arab protesters rallied in New York's Times Square chanting anti-Israeli slogans.
In Manama, Bahrain, police clashed Friday with thousands of demonstrators who had gathered outside the U.S. Embassy to protest U.S. and Israeli actions in the Mideast.
Protests were also reported in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Jordan. (Full story)
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