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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Israel defies US pressure to withdraw
A convoy of Israeli army tanks and armoured personnel carriers drive in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
The Israeli offensive has sparked international concern
Israel is continuing its military offensive in the West Bank, despite growing pressure from the United States to withdraw its troops from Palestinian territories immediately.

The president is expecting [a withdrawal] without delay - meaning now

Colin Powell
As he left for a tour of the Middle East, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell called for Israeli forces to pull out "now".

Heavy gunfire broke out in Bethlehem overnight around the Church of the Nativity, where some 200 Palestinians have been taking refuge from Israeli troops.

Israeli security sources have admitted firing in the direction of the church, but said they were not to blame as Palestinian gunmen inside the church had fired on troops trying to rescue injured comrades.

Each side also blamed the other for starting a fire in a hall adjoining the church.

Israeli helicopter gunships have also been firing missiles into a refugee camp in Jenin.

Smoke rises at building adjoining Church of Nativity
In Bethlehem a fire engine is reported to have been allowed through to put out the blaze
Meeting in emergency session, the UN Security Council added its voice to demands for a ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

But an Israeli army spokesman, Jacob Dalal, told the BBC the Israeli army had no instructions from the government to end the offensive, which was launched to combat the threat of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the military operation will be speeded up, not ended.

Stiff resistance

The Israeli army says it has killed at least 200 Palestinians in its sweeping 11-day offensive.

The world is watching and Israel needs to end this pitiless assault on civilian refugee camps

UN official Peter Hansen

Reports have spoken of dozens of dead bodies lying in the streets of the Jenin refugee camp where the army met much stiffer resistance than expected from Palestinian fighters. Seven of its own soldiers have died there.

The head of the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) Peter Hansen called on the Israeli army to end its "pitiless assault" on civilian refugee camps in Nablus and Jenin.

He said reports of "pure horror" had been coming in, of helicopters strafing civilian residential areas, systematic shelling by tanks, and of bulldozers razing refugee homes.

Confused picture

An Israeli field commander said more than 30 Palestinian guerrillas had been killed in two days of close combat in Nablus.

Enlarge image Click here for map of Israeli operation

Palestinian officials say there has been a "massacre" in Jenin, with more than 30 people including civilians, women and children among the dead.

The figures cannot be confirmed because neither medics nor the media have been allowed access.

The Palestinian Red Crescent says there are 12 confirmed deaths in Jenin, but that does not include anyone killed in the past two days when fighting was heaviest.

Jenin and Nablus have been under heavy and continuous shelling for several days. Some areas are surrounded by Israeli troops as Palestinian guerrillas defend dense mazes of streets and alleyways.

Israeli troops and tanks surrounded several small villages near Ramallah on Sunday, including two villages where the forces entered and conducted house to house searches.

In another development to heighten the sense of crisis, Israeli security sources said at least six people had been wounded in cross-border attacks by Lebanese guerrillas on Sunday evening.

Israeli civilians living near the border were ordered into bomb shelters amid fears that Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups were trying to make Israel to fight on two fronts.

Diplomatic moves

Over the weekend, President Bush followed up his demand for Israeli withdrawal with a 20-minute phone call to Mr Sharon, and US officials said he had called for an immediate pullout, not just promises of future action.

The foreign minister of Spain - which currently holds the European Union presidency - said the EU would discuss imposing sanctions on Israel if it continued its incursions on Palestinian territory.

Statements from Mr Sharon's office said the Israeli offensive was being prolonged by the need to prevent harm to civilians.

The BBC's Paul Wood
"The Bush administration is demanding an immediate withdrawal"
Father Amjad Sabbara inside Church of the Nativity
"We don't want to leave"
The BBC's Richard Miron reports from Jenin
"There is intense fighting going on"
See also:

08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Powell's peace mission
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN Security Council's growing anger
07 Apr 02 | Middle East
Tensions rise on Lebanon border
07 Apr 02 | Middle East
Pope calls for Mid-East peace
06 Apr 02 | Americas
Bush and Blair's united stance
05 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN to probe Mid-East 'rights abuses'
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