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US Steps Up Mideast Mediation - 2002-04-22

The United States is stepping up mediation efforts after Israel announced the end of its military offensive in the West Bank. However, Israeli forces are refusing to withdraw from Ramallah and Bethlehem until wanted Palestinians in both places either surrender or are captured. An American mediator is trying to resolve the standoffs to facilitate cease-fire talks.

U.S. envoy William Burns met Monday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his besieged headquarters in the West Bank City of Ramallah.

Mr. Burns discussed with Mr. Arafat ways to end the military siege around his offices, one of the obstacles to possible cease-fire talks to end nearly 19 months of bloodshed.

Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesman for Mr. Arafat, says the Palestinian leader told Mr. Burns that Israel must unconditionally withdraw from Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Mr. Arafat says that a truce is impossible while Israeli troops continue to keep him a virtual prisoner.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that soldiers will remain stationed outside Mr. Arafat's offices until they have arrested five wanted Palestinians who have been hiding inside the compound.

Israeli forces have also sealed off the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The soldiers are seeking to capture wanted Palestinians who have spent almost three weeks barricaded inside the sanctuary, where tradition holds Jesus was born. Israel says it will continue to surround the church until all wanted Palestinians in the shrine either surrender or are captured.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Palestinians have started to venture out of their homes for the first time to survey the damage, after weeks of fighting between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops.