- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday Israeli troops will be out of all West Bank cities except Ramallah and Bethlehem within a week, lending a spark of hope to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's peace mission to the region.
"Altogether, we are on our way out," Mr. Sharon said in an interview with CNN. He added that Israel has no intention to stay in "cities of terror."
Mr. Powell meanwhile embraced an idea put forward by Mr. Sharon on Sunday for an international conference involving regional leaders as a way to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"It's a way to get the parties together and talking," Mr. Powell said after quick visits to Syria and Lebanon, where he pressed for an end to Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel.
In the interview, Mr. Sharon spoke of his desire for peace but reiterated his view that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is not a partner in peace and that Mr. Powell, who is in the region, should not have met with him Sunday.
The United States has called on Israel to immediately end its military campaign in the West Bank that began March 29 with the aim of rooting out the organizers of suicide attacks on Israelis.
Israel has consistently said it cannot leave until the job is done, but until yesterday had not indicated when that might be.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat angrily rejected Mr. Sharon's statements.
"When he says he will pull out from built-up areas, it means he is turning our towns into big prisons," denying Palestinians the right to move freely around the West Bank and even preventing people from reaching hospitals, Mr. Erekat told CNN.
Asked how quickly Israeli forces would be out of two of the towns where there had been the most fighting Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank Mr. Sharon said the withdrawal from Jenin would come in less than a week and in Nablus "not more than a week."
The two exceptions Mr. Sharon gave were Bethlehem, where Israeli forces are engaged in a standoff with more than 200 armed men in the Church of the Nativity, and Ramallah.
"We have problems in Bethlehem terrorists took shelter in the Church of the Nativity. Once they will be leaving we will be leaving," Mr. Sharon said.
Asked whether within a week Israel would be out of all areas that were part of the military incursion except Bethlehem, Mr. Sharon cut in to say "and Ramallah, unless those terrorists will be handed over to us or leave there."
Those who killed Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October 2001 remain in Ramallah, he said. Israel has said they are inside Mr. Arafat's headquarters, which is surrounded by Israeli troops.
Mr. Sharon meets again today with Mr. Powell, who also is planning a second visit tomorrow with Mr. Arafat at this ruined Ramallah headquarters, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Mr. Powell said the United States would not necessarily be the host of the proposed international conference but that both sides would have to be represented.
Mr. Sharon is unwilling to participate in a conference if Mr. Arafat attends, but Mr. Powell said the Palestinian leader could send high-ranking officials to represent him if talks were held at the foreign minister level.
"We've got to move quickly to a political track, and there are many ways to do that and one way is with a regional or international conference," Mr. Powell said.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi endorsed a conference, saying such a gathering must include the United States, the European Union and the Arab League as well as Israel and the Palestinians.

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