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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Powell begins key peace talks
Israeli PM Ariel Sharon (left) with US Secretary of State Colin Powell
The United States remains Israel's staunchest ally
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has begun crucial talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon aimed at securing an immediate Israeli troop withdrawal in the West Bank.

As the three-hour meeting got under way the Israeli army acknowledged that its attack on the West Bank town of Jenin had caused many casualties.

The situation is so dangerous and the humanitarian and human rights situation so appalling, the proposition that a force should be sent in there... can no longer be deferred

Kofi Annan

But the army corrected its earlier statement that hundreds of Palestinians had been killed in Jenin. It said hundreds had been wounded there, and the figure for those killed was closer to 100.

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, on Friday called for an international force to be deployed to quell the violence.

Mr Sharon has ruled out any immediate halt to the Israeli army offensive in the West Bank - an operation he says is aimed at rooting out "terrorists".

Even before Mr Powell's talks started there were signs that Washington might settle for less than an immediate Israeli withdrawal, the BBC's Jon Leyne reports from Jerusalem.

  Town-by-town guide to the West Bank operation

US officials have been studying maps of the West Bank and the length of the meeting suggests that Mr Powell may be negotiating a timetable for withdrawal with the Israelis, our correspondent says.

Measures to ease the humanitarian crisis in the West Bank are also likely to be discussed.

Mr Powell will travel to the besieged West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday.

A Palestinian gunman killed an Israeli border guard and a Palestinian labourer in an attack on Friday near the Erez crossing point between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel.

Four Israelis and three Palestinians were also wounded before the gunman was shot dead by Israeli border police. The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.

Jenin 'massacre'

The Palestinians have called on the United Nations to investigate what they said was an Israeli massacre of Palestinians in a refugee camp in Jenin, captured by Israel on Wednesday.

West Bank casualties
About 100 Palestinians killed, many others wounded in Jenin camp, Israeli army says
23 Israeli soldiers killed in Jenin camp, including 13 caught in ambush
Palestinians say more than 500 Palestinians killed overall in Israeli offensive

They said there were extra-judicial executions in the camp, although there is no independent verification of that.

Journalists entered Jenin on Thursday for the first time since Israel took control of the town.

There were widespread reports of badly damaged buildings but no sign of bodies.

Israel launched its massive assault on the West Bank two weeks ago following a spate of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

Sharon defiant

On Thursday, Mr Sharon said he had "warned the Americans that the Israeli army would not withdraw from Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah until all the [Palestinian] terrorists there have surrendered".

Palestinians among rubble in Jenin
Jenin fell to Israeli troops after an eight-day battle

A senior US official told the Associated Press news agency Mr Powell will warn the Palestinian leader that unless he renounces terrorism the US is prepared to sever ties with him.

"The message is: 'This is it. Last chance'," the news agency quoted the unnamed source as saying.

However, Mr Arafat took a hard stance on Thursday night, telling a rally in Cairo by telephone that Palestinians were prepared to die to defend Jerusalem.

Mass arrests

Israel says it has detained more than 4,000 Palestinians and seized thousands of illegal weapons and explosives since it began its offensive in the West Bank on 29 March.

Detained Palestinian
Israel has detained thousands of suspected militants

Nearly half the number of Palestinians arrested were detained after the militant strongholds of Jenin and Nablus fell to Israeli troops.

By Friday morning, Israeli troops were still present in the Palestinian towns and villages of Ramallah, Nablus, Qalqilya, Bethlehem, Jenin, Dura, Dahariya and Kufar al Abad.

Earlier, troops briefly entered Tulkarm, to seize someone they alleged was a would-be suicide bomber.

Soldiers also entered Bir Zeit, where they detained hundreds of students at the university.

In Bethlehem, a stand-off which began on 2 April around the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, continued.

There are still more than 100 armed men inside the church, including 30 militants on Israel's wanted list, the army says.

The BBC's Jonny Dymond in Jerusalem
"Few can see how Mr Powell can bring the two sides together"
Israeli Foreign Affairs Amb. Mark Sofer
"Colin Powell must bring a strategic change to the ideology of the Palestinian leadership"
See also:

11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jenin after the battle
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel steps up Palestinian arrests
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jerusalem's deserted streets
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Arafat 'not a partner for peace'
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Haifa bus bomb
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
Suicide bomb fears haunt Israelis
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israelis back Sharon
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Vatican outrage over church siege
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Netanyahu talks tough to US
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