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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK
Israelis leave Arafat's Ramallah HQ
Israeli tank leaving Ramallah
The Israeli pull-out began late on Wednesday
Israeli forces have pulled back from the ravaged compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah following a deal transferring six Palestinians to international custody.

The withdrawal should mean the end of Mr Arafat's confinement in Ramallah where tanks besieged his headquarters for more than a month.

Fire in Bethlehem church compound
Several rounds of negotiations have failed to resolve the situation in Bethlehem
In his first public comments after the pull-out, Mr Arafat condemned the continuing stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where renewed clashes broke out during Wednesday night.

Heavy exchanges of gunfire and explosions were heard, and sources inside the Church compound said a number of fires were burning.

In another development, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has confirmed his intention to disband the planned fact-finding mission into what happened at the Jenin refugee camp during the Israeli offensive.

This follows days of wrangling and delays to the mission after Israel raising a series of objections to its mandate.

The Palestinians allege that a massacre took place at the camp during the week-long assault there - something Israel denies.

'Emotions high'

Israel had refused to withdraw its tanks from the Ramallah compound, where they had been for more than a month, as long as he sheltered the six.

The deadlock over the prisoners, who are wanted by Israel, was broken at the weekend after a proposal to put the men in US and British custody.

Convoy arrives in Jericho
Palestinians in Jericho turned out to cheer as the prisoners' convoy arrived
Diplomatic vehicles carrying the men left Ramallah under cover of darkness after a delay reported to have been caused by the need for identity checks.

According to witnesses, emotions were high as the prisoners, mostly in handcuffs, left the compound after handshakes and awkward embraces from those left behind, the French news agency AFP said.

The convoy was escorted by Israeli police force cars on the brief journey to the West Bank town of Jericho where the men will be held in jail under US and UK supervision.

Four of the six were convicted by a makeshift Palestinian court of the killing of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.

The other two are Ahmed Saadat - leader of the militant group that carried out the assassination - and Fuad Shobaki, who Israel claims was behind a foiled arms shipment in January.
Yasser Arafat
Mr Arafat should now be free to travel in the Palestinian territories

Hundreds of Jericho residents are reported to have turned out to greet the men and cheer them when they arrived.

The hand-over of the men should mean Mr Arafat will be allowed to move freely in the Palestinian territories after being confined by Israeli forces to Ramallah for five months.

Bethlehem fighting

The BBC's Clare Marshall in Bethlehem said the heaviest exchange of fire was taking place since the incursion and siege began a month ago.

Heavy machine gun rounds, tank shells and rifle shots could be heard, with the Palestinians inside the church returning fire.
Palestinians, one wounded, leave the Church of the Nativity
Two more people left the Church on Wednesday

Several days of peace negotiations have failed to end the stand-off, although nearly 30 people have emerged and surrendered from the Church compound this week

More than 200 people have been trapped for four weeks, including about 30 armed Palestinians wanted by Israel.

Jenin mission

The Secretary-General told the Security Council on Wednesday he planned to disband a UN mission that had been due to go to the Jenin refugee camp.

In a letter to the 15-member body, Kofi Annan said he intended to disband it on Thursday.

The letter was delivered as the Council began to discuss the issue.

Israel: Says it killed 52 people, mainly gunmen, in pitched battles, losing 23 of its own soldiers
Palestinians: Say hundreds of civilians were massacred
British military expert: Believes Israel's casualty estimate closer to the truth but detects evidence of other war crimes

Uncertainty had surrounded the mission after Mr Annan indicated a day earlier that he was "minded to disband the team" after continued opposition from the Israeli Government.

With US backing, the Council had appointed former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to lead the mission after Palestinians said civilians had been massacred in the camp during Israel's military operation to root out militants.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"There is a lot of is a time of reunion and relief"
The BBC's Nick Hawton
"Yasser Arafat is now allowed to travel, but if he goes abroad, he may not be allowed back"
Yasser Arafat condemns the fire at Bethlehem
"This is a holy sacred place"
Daniel Taub, Israeli Foreign Ministry
"We have mixed feelings"
See also:

01 May 02 | Middle East
Huge turnout for Gaza victims
30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Profile: Israel's six wanted
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
Expert weighs up Jenin 'massacre'
30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinians leave besieged church
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
Ramallah deal hinges on prisoners
30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Pope to send Mid-East envoy
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