Sharon snubs new calls for retreat

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon shrugged off a fresh barrage of demands from the international community to end his military assault in the West Bank, declaring yesterday there were still "thousands of terrorists" at large, "with a tremendous quantity of weapons and explosives".

After the first suicide bombing in more than a week killed eight Israelis on a bus near Haifa, the Israeli Prime Minister said the United States should not be putting pressure on Israel to stop its operation, which has drawn worldwide condemnation.

Britain, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations threw their weight behind the US demands for an immediate end to the 13-day campaign, in which at least 200 Palestinians have been killed. Several hundred people, including some militiamen, are still holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, surrounded by Israeli troops.

The demands to Mr Sharon are likely to be repeated today by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who is expected to arrive in Israel this evening to push for a ceasefire. General Powell was dismissive of Mr Sharon's defiance, saying that his mission was "not in the least in jeopardy".

In new military developments today, Israeli forces pulled out of 24 Palestinian villages and invaded two more, the central village of Ber Zeit and the southern village of Dahariya.

Most of the 24 villages have not received much attention since the offensive began. In Ber Zeit, witnesses said soldiers quickly occupied the police station and began house-to-house searches, with little resistance, although fighting was reported in Dahariya.

Gen. Powell prefaced his arrival in Jerusalem by taking a tougher line with Israel. To Mr Sharon's annoyance, he intends to visit Yasser Arafat, whom he has repeatedly acknowledged as leader of the Palestinian people, in his Ramallah compound, which is surrounded by Israeli troops. General Powell said: "The reality is that no other Palestinian leader or, for that matter, Arab leader is prepared to engage as a partner until Mr Arafat has had a chance to express his views to me and to others." He added that the US would like to see Mr Arafat get "more space and access", adding that he would look into conditions under which the Palestinian leader was operating.

Touring an army base near Jenin, Mr Sharon was adamant that "our soldiers have to be able to continue this struggle".

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