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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 22:22 GMT 23:22 UK
Israel 'to withdraw within a week'
Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti
Israel arrested Fatah West Bank chief Marwan Barghouti
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Israeli troops could pull out of Palestinian towns in less than a week, as Israeli forces arrested one of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's closest aides.

Like in every democratic country, he [Mr Barghouti] will be tried in Israel and put in prison

Ariel Sharon

Mr Sharon told US television network Fox News that Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank head of Mr Arafat's Fatah faction and a leading figure in the Palestinian intifada (uprising), would be put on trial.

"Like in every democratic country, he will be tried in Israel and put in prison," said the Israeli leader.

Mr Sharon said in a phone call to US President George Bush that Israeli forces would pull out of all Palestinian areas except Ramallah and Bethlehem within a week.

  Detailed map of the West Bank operation

He said a withdrawal from Nablus would take "not more than a week", while troops could leave Jenin within "a couple of days".

However, Mr Sharon said troops would not leave Ramallah or Bethlehem until Palestinian "terrorists" were handed over to Israel.

"Altogether," said Mr Sharon, "we are on our way out", adding that Israel had no intention of staying in "cities of terror".

In other developments

  • The ICRC searches for Palestinian bodies in Jenin refugee camp, scene of heavy fighting with Israeli troops
  • EU ministers reject sanctions against Israel
  • UN Human Rights body condemns Israel for "gross violations of humanitarian law"
  • Israeli troops exchange fire with Palestinians trapped in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity
  • Thousands gather in Washington for a mass rally in support of Israel

But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Sharon was defying the United States and the international community by not withdrawing immediately.

The US State Department said Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a peace mission to the region, would meet Mr Sharon on Tuesday and the Palestinian leader the following day.

Barghouti captured

The Israeli army said an elite unit arrested Mr Barghouti at a house in northern Ramallah.

Wreckage from attack on Barghouti's car
Mr Barghouti escaped a previous attack

The 42-year-old Fatah leader had been sought by Israel since it began its so-called Operation Defensive Shield and had reportedly spent most of the past two weeks hiding in nearby villages.

Israel radio said Mr Barghouti surrendered without a fight.

Palestinian West Bank Security Chief Jibril Rajoub warned that if Israel harmed Mr Barghouti it would face "catastrophes... and expand the circle of violence".

The Israeli leader said Mr Barghouti's arrest in Ramallah showed the importance of continuing Israel's military campaign.

"Just imagine if we had withdrawn one day earlier and he would have been free and he'd be able to continue," he said.

The Israelis blame Mr Barghouti for much of the violence in the intifada, including suicide bombings.

Mr Barghouti denies the accusations.

Conference 'without Arafat'

Mr Sharon said peace with the Palestinian leader was not possible and that the United States had said Mr Arafat should no longer lead the Palestinian people.

The Israeli prime minister has isolated Mr Arafat in his offices in Ramallah since the Israeli army launched its offensive on the West Bank on 29 March following a spate of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli targets.

Mr Sharon's comments came after Mr Powell raised the possibility of a Middle East peace conference being held without Mr Arafat's involvement.

The secretary of state spoke on returning to Israel after visiting Lebanon and Syria in an attempt to calm the tension on Israel's northern borders.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"There is very little cause for fresh hope"
British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw
"We continue to recognise chairman Arafat"
Mustafa Barghouthi, Palestinian Activist
"It is another grave mistake on the side of the Israelis"
Daniel Seaman, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister
The main objective for this operation was providing security for the public and state of Israel"
See also:

15 Apr 02 | Middle East
Powell: Arafat not needed at talks
15 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jenin camp situation 'horrendous'
15 Apr 02 | Middle East
Gunfire erupts near Bethlehem church
04 Aug 01 | Middle East
Palestinian leader survives attack
15 Apr 02 | Americas
Thousands in US rally for Israel
30 Jul 01 | profiles
Fatah: Cornerstone of Arafat's power
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