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Sharon: Troops withdrawing but not entirely

Israeli forces to remain in Ramallah, Bethlehem

Sharon: "Altogether, we are on our way out."  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that Israel would pull its troops out of most Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank within a week, but he said forces would remain in Ramallah and Bethlehem until standoffs there were settled.

In an interview with CNN, Sharon also said Israel would be willing to participate in a Middle East conference that would include foreign ministers from Israel and Arab nations. Such a conference would not require the attendance of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"Yes. Why not?" Sharon said about the regional meeting. The important thing, he said, would be to engage Arab leaders in discussions on a peace plan.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday he was considering a ministerial-level meeting to discuss a peace plan. Powell was scheduled to meet with Arafat Tuesday.

Sharon said operations could be concluded within a week in Nablus and Jenin, the latter having seen some of the fiercest fighting since the start of the incursions.

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Sharon ordered the operations in late March to root out what he called "terrorist infrastructure" following a series of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. The Palestinians call the campaign an Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank.

"Altogether, we are on our way out," Sharon told CNN.

Sharon stipulated, however, the troops would not leave completely and would remain nearby. He said if the situation remained calm, they would withdraw farther.

The Israeli Cabinet has approved a Sharon plan to set up security "belts" along the border between Israel and the West Bank, sources said Monday.

The belts would be 5 kilometers wide, with fences and electronic surveillance intended to prevent Palestinians from passing into Israel and to limit crossings to specific sites, the sources said.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sharon's talk of a withdrawal was a "sham" and charged he was continuing to defy U.S. President Bush.

Ramallah is the scene of an ongoing siege at Arafat's compound, which has been surrounded since March 29, when Israel's operation in the West Bank began.

The Israelis believe the killers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evi, assassinated in October, are holed up in the Ramallah compound.

In Bethlehem, a standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christendom. An estimated 200 armed Palestinians, along with some 40 church workers, have been holed up inside the church since taking shelter during an Israeli military incursion that began April 2.

"We have problems in Bethlehem," Sharon said. "Terrorists took shelter in the Church of the Nativity. Once they will be leaving ... we will be leaving."

Sharon said the United Sates had accepted a proposal to end the standoff.

Sharon said he proposed the Palestinians turn in their weapons and that those with no connection to terrorism would be freed.

Those Israel believes are terrorists would be given the choice of facing trial in Israel or going to exile in a third country, transported on an airplane provided by Britain.

U.S. officials confirmed they were working with Sharon on such a plan.

U.S. considers regional meeting

Bush administration officials in Washington cautioned that the proposal for a foreign ministers meeting was among many options being discussed by Powell during his travels in the region, and was far from a certainty

Sharon proposed a regional meeting Sunday night but said he wants Arafat excluded. In Monday's interview, he repeated that he does not believe Israel could reach a peace deal with Arafat.

Powell's idea of having a meeting of foreign ministers would avoid that roadblock.

"It will be foreign minister meeting, the leaders meeting, and that is not the problem. The problem is how to try and talk to Arab leaders and I -- I was ready to go to Beirut to meet with them. That's what should be done," Sharon said.

Sharon was referring to his offer to talk to participants of the Arab League summit about a Saudi peace proposal that would exchange normal relations for a withdrawal by Israel from the Palestinian territories. The proposal was approved by the league last month.

In reaction to Sharon's remarks, Erakat said Powell was "working on a number of ideas" and the Palestinians would attend a conference "as soon as we know it's not more talking about talking."




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