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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 07:06 GMT 08:06 UK
Israeli troops begin withdrawal
Israeli army jeep
The Israeli army left Tulkarm during the night
Israel has begun to withdraw troops from the towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarm in the northern West Bank.

The decision followed intense US pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull soldiers out of Palestinian areas.

A White House spokesman described the Israeli move as "a start".

But fighting continues in several other towns in the West Bank, with Israeli forces moving in the southern town of Dura, as the pullout in northern towns was going on.

The Israeli defence ministry said that operations in Tulkarm and Qalqilya had "dealt a heavy blow to the terrorist infrastructure".

But they said that the departing troops would maintain a cordon around the towns.

Mr Sharon told the Israeli parliament on Monday that the military campaign in the West Bank would continue until "terrorist organisations" were crushed.

Bush message

But US President George Bush reiterated that Israel must pull its troops out of Palestinian areas immediately.

Sharon shows documents to Knesset allegedly linking Arafat to suicide bombings
Sharon said he had evidence linking Arafat to suicide bombings

"I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel. I expect there to be withdrawal without delay."

He also called on Arab leaders to "stand up and condemn terrorism, terrorist activity".

Mr Bush's message was also delivered in person to Mr Sharon via the US special envoy, Anthony Zinni.

The BBC's Paul Wood in Jerusalem says there is clearly a wish by the Israelis to demonstrate good faith to the Americans but also a determination to carry on until the job is done.

In Morocco, US Secretary of State Colin Powell echoed Mr Bush's demand, and said he hoped that the withdrawal from Tulkarm and Qalqilya was the first stage of a longer process.

"I am pleased that Prime Minister Sharon has made this decision and I hope it is the beginning of a full withdrawal," said Mr Powell.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the BBC that Israel would allow Mr Powell to meet the besieged Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who is still surrounded by Israeli tanks in Ramallah.

Military offensive

In Dura, near Hebron, Palestinian sources said tanks had entered the centre of the town and troops were searching buildings.

Heavy fighting was reported in a cemetery just outside the town with at least one Palestinian killed and others wounded. One Israeli soldier was reported to be seriously injured.

Israeli forces continued bombarding refugee camps in Nablus and Jenin on Monday.

The Israeli army said almost 200 Palestinian gunmen had surrendered in Nablus, but this could not be independently confirmed.

A Palestinian youth carries relief goods donated by the International Red Cross in Bethlehem
The Red Cross distributed food to areas in Bethlehem
The Israeli army is still operating in four cities: Ramallah-El Bireh, Bethlehem-Beit Jala, Nablus and Jenin.

A stand-off was continuing in Bethlehem, where Palestinian gunmen are holed up in the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Israel sent troops and tanks into Palestinian cities on 29 March after a suicide bombing that killed 27 people at the start of the Jewish Passover holiday.

Israel says nine of its soldiers have been killed since the Jenin operation began five days ago.

It is not known how many Palestinians have died. But residents reached by telephone have spoken of a desperate situation, with many injured and dead.

The Red Cross says only a small number of ambulances have been allowed to reach the wounded.

The BBC's Paul Wood
"It is not clear if Israeli troops will leave the West Bank completely"
Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian Legislative Council
"The best thing would be to withdraw"
Dore Gold, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister
"We have moved, the Palestinians have not"
See also:

09 Apr 02 | Middle East
Powell to hear Egypt's frustration
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Israelis back Sharon
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Sharon strengthens coalition
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Vatican outrage over church siege
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Troops mobilised for Lebanon border
06 Apr 02 | Americas
Bush and Blair's united stance
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