Israel completes withdrawal from Jenin

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Israel completed its withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jenin but armed forces maintained a blockade of the town and refugee camp where conditions were described by a UN envoy as "horrifying beyond belief."

The military said the withdrawal from Jenin was completed overnight ,and Israeli forces took up positions just outside, preventing Palestinians from entering or leaving. Palestinians have demanded that Israel remove all its roadblocks.

After the pullout, the military declared Jenin a closed military area and banned reporters from entering.

Israel said it had captured Husam Ataf Ali Badran, a leader of the Hamas militant organization, near Nablus. Witnesses said Israeli helicopters fired missiles and machine guns at an isolated house in a field of orange trees. Israel Radio said three others were killed in the attack.

Among the attacks attributed to Badran was the bombing of a Jewish Passover celebration in Netanya on 27 March which triggered the largest Israeli military operation in two decades. An army statement said his capture "is a significant blow" to Hamas.

Colonel Miri Eisen of the military spokesman's office said Israeli commanders were surprised by the quantity of explosives and number of bomb-making laboratories soldiers found during the three-week West Bank operation.

Israeli troops moved briefly into Palestinian-controlled territory in Gaza near the border with Egypt, scene of frequent clashes and incursions. Palestinian doctors said two people were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Also, the military said soldiers killed two armed Palestinians who tried to infiltrate into a Jewish settlement in Gaza.

After Israeli forces loosened their grip on Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp, residents picked through rubble of buildings destroyed, braving the stench of decaying bodies in a desperate search for loved ones.

Touring the Jenin camp yesterday UN envoy Terje Larsen said about 300 buildings were destroyed and 2,000 people were left homeless in the Israeli operation to capture or kill armed militants.

"Not any objective can justify such action, with colossal suffering" to civilians, he said.

"Corpses were being dug up just below the surface and the stench is terrible," said the Norwegian diplomat. "This is horrifying beyond belief. Just seeing this area, it looks like there's been an earthquake here."

Danny Ayalon, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief foreign policy adviser, denied that Israel had blocked relief efforts.

Another 35 decomposing bodies were buried in Nablus when Israel lifted a curfew for three hours. Israeli forces are to pull out of Nablus over the weekend, said Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a "robust" international peace force to stop Palestinian-Israeli violence, but Israel turned down the idea.