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Saturday, 6 April, 2002, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Israel given new pullout warning
Troops search a journalist's vehicle in Ramallah
Israel has sealed off West Bank towns
The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has told Israel it should stop its incursions into Palestinian towns "without delay" after the bloodiest day yet since the military operation began.

But on Saturday morning Israeli forces widened the scope of their operations - moving into the autonomous towns of Yatta, south of Hebron, and Qabatiya, north of Nablus.

Enlarge image Click here for map of Israeli operation
Two Palestinians were killed and seven wounded in Yatta as tanks backed by helicopters fought their way into the centre of town, Palestinian security sources said.

An Israeli military spokesman said two soldiers were killed during the night at a refugee camp in Jenin and three others were injured.

The spokesman said the deaths came during an overnight gun battle, although a local leader of the militant group Hamas said a Palestinian woman blew herself up as the soldiers came to search her house.

Mr Powell, who is due to set out on a visit to the region on Sunday, warned Israel that it should not wait until then to instigate a withdrawal.

It will be a new kind of punishment... that will shake [Israel] and destroy its pillars

Hamas statement
"The president's expectation is that the incursions will stop and the withdrawal process will begin as soon as possible or without delay," he said.

More than 20 Palestinians were killed on Friday in fighting in the towns of Nablus and Jenin and nearby refugee camps.

Among those killed on Friday were six Hamas militants, including Qais Idwan, the man Israel blames for the "Passover massacre" last week which killed 26 people and triggered the current offensive.

Hamas vowed revenge with a "new kind of punishment" that would shake Israel to its foundations.

Arafat meeting

Israeli government spokesman Gideon Meir said Mr Bush had not specified the "immediate withdrawal" of Israeli forces, and said any such action would happen only "after having cleaned up the nest of terrorists".

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell will spearhead a new peace initiative
On Friday, paving the way for Mr Powell's visit, US envoy Anthony Zinni was allowed to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his besieged Ramallah headquarters.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described General Zinni's message as "direct and impatient".

US officials say Mr Powell could also visit Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The last two are the only Arab states to have full peace treaties with Israel, and both have threatened to cut off diplomatic relations.

BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Wood says things are not going well for Mr Zinni's ceasefire plan.

Implentation depends on a meeting of a three-man Palestinian security committee - whose members are currently stranded in Gaza, Ramallah and Jericho by the Israeli blockade.

Palestinian leaders have warned that they will boycott the secretary of state if he refuses to meet Mr Arafat - a likely outcome if the two sides fail to agree on a ceasefire.

Minister's home raided

In another development, Israeli soldiers raided the home of the Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, near Ramallah, but he was not arrested and the troops later left.

Israeli troops still control nearly all of the West Bank and have declared the occupied towns to be closed military zones out of bounds to journalists.

In the West Bank, only Jericho and parts of Hebron remain unoccupied by Israeli forces.

In Bethlehem, a tense stand-off continues for a fifth day at the Church of the Nativity - revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus - where Israeli troops are besieging Palestinian gunmen sheltering among civilians.

Israel says it has taken 900 Palestinian prisoners since its campaign began on 29 March.

The BBC's Paul Wood in Jerusalem
"The Palestinian officials involved in talks are not being allowed to travel"
Spokesman for Ariel Sharon Daniel Seaman
"We are not ignoring anything the president says"
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat
"This is coup d'etat against Palestinian democracy"
See also:

06 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies in with ceasefire agenda
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN to probe Mid-East 'rights abuses'
05 Apr 02 | Business
Iran wields oil embargo threat
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel deepens West Bank presence
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Israel's firepower challenged
05 Apr 02 | Media reports
Press probes Bush initiative
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bush intervenes in Mid-East crisis
05 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair heads for Bush talks
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Extracts from Bush's speech
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
Nobel's regrets on Peres award
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