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Amidst Violence, U.S. Mediator Arrives in Mideast

Zinni’s arrival comes as violence continues to rage, and as both sides are voicing pessimism about the feasibility of a cease-fire.

Prior to Zinni’s arrival, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered his troops to gradually withdraw from the West Bank town of Ramallah, where five armed Palestinians were killed earlier today. Sharon gave no details on the timing of the pullback.

Israeli tanks moved into Ramallah on Tuesday as part of the largest military incursion since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

The United States responded by calling for a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian-controlled areas.

“We do expect a complete withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas, including Ramallah and the other areas the Israeli defense forces recently entered,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said they were ready to work with Zinni to forge a truce. Zinni will attend talks Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Friday he plans to meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Zinni, a retired Marine general, has previously made two unsuccessful attempts to broker an end to violence.

Despite the talks, violence continued to sweep across the occupied terroritories. Palestinians detonated a bomb under an Israeli Merkava-3 tank in the Gaza Strip, killing three Israeli soldiers and wounding two.

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen exchanged gunfire in Ramallah where four members of the Palestinian security forces were killed.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian militiamen shot and killed two suspected informers, dragged a body through the streets and tried to hang it from a building overlooking the Church of the Nativity, which is revered as Jesus’ birthplace. Palestinian police, arriving after the men had been killed, prevented the hanging.

Meanwhile, two Palestinian militiamen, including a bomb expert, were killed in an Israeli missile attack on their West Bank hide-out.

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