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Sharon Pledges Withdrawal Within a Week; Powell in Lebanon, Syria

Sharon told CNN he expects to pull forces out of the West Bank towns of Nablus and Jenin in under a week. Israeli troops entered two Palestinian villages today near Bethlehem, continuing incursions into the West Bank despite U.S. calls to end the military offensive.

The Israeli prime minister added his army would not leave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah until alleged militants inside the offices surrender. Nor will troops leave the city of Bethlehem until a standoff with Palestinian gunmen at the Church of the Nativity ends.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell met with leaders in Beirut and Damascus today to discuss an Israeli proposal for a Middle East peace conference and to lessen tensions along Israel’s northern border.

Powell said the conference could serve as a way to discuss the diplomatic future for the region.

“We’ve got to move quickly to a political track and there are many ways to do that and one way is a regional or international conference,” Secretary Powell told reporters.

While in Lebanon and Syria, Powell also called on the two governments to crack down on attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas that threaten to turn the Lebanese-Israel border into a second battleground in the conflict.

“It is essential for all those committed to peace to act immediately to stop actions across the border. This is the message I have conveyed and will continue to convey to all governments in the region,” Powell said after meeting with the Lebanese president.

Hezbollah responded defiantly in a statement late Monday.

“The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon again confirms that it will continue carrying out its duty to free the remaining occupied Lebanese land and will not submit to the messages, pressure and threats that the American minister conveyed,” it read in part.

During an hour-long meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, Powell asked the Syrian leader for his assessment on “a way forward to negotiations” to solve the conflict.

Meanwhile in the West Bank, Israel captured a close aide to Arafat, Marwan Barghouti, who is on Israel’s wanted list for allegedly masterminding terror attacks.

Barghouti, considered a leading contender to succeed Arafat, is a key figure in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the militia that has claimed dozens of attacks against Israelis. Israel considers Barghouti the top militant in the West Bank and a staunch advocate of continued violence against Israel.

Barghouti was detained at Fatah official Ziad Abu Ain’s house. Ain, who was detained by police in Ramallah, warned against harming Barghouti.

“Killing or humiliating him will bring catastrophes for Israel and will expand the circle of violence,” he said.

Also Monday, Palestinian medics began retrieving bodies from a Jenin refugee camp, the scene of deadly fighting. On Sunday the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Red Cross must monitor the retrieval process, following charges that Israel was trying to cover up a massacre of hundreds of people, including civilians. Israel claims that about one hundred people were killed, most of them gunmen.

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