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Israeli Troops Pull Out of 24 Palestinian Villages - 2002-04-11

Israeli troops have pulled out of 24 Palestinian villages on the West Bank, but tanks have pushed into at least two other areas near major West Bank cities. The redeployment comes just ahead of U-S Secretary or State Colin Powell's arrival on a mission to revive ceasefire talks.

A statement from the military says Israel has pulled out its troops from 24 West Bank villages. But tanks and troops remain in four key Palestinian cities and on the outskirts of two more.

And, early Thursday, Israeli forces moved into two new towns, including Bir Zeit, which is located next to Ramallah. Students were ordered to leave the Palestinian university there.

The redeployment comes only hours before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to arrive in Israel. Mr. Powell meets Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, early Friday, to try to persuade him to end the military offensive.

Despite Mr. Sharon's objections, Secretary Powell is expected to meet Saturday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in his Ramallah office, where he has been trapped by an Israeli siege for nearly two weeks.

Prime Minister Sharon has vowed to continue Operation Defensive Shield, arguing the military needs more time to destroy the network of suicide bombers. Wednesday, a Palestinian from Jenin blew up a bus near Haifa, killing eight people. The suicide bomber was disguised as an Israeli soldier.

In Jenin, Israeli forces continue their house-to-house search for Palestinian fighters and weapons. Some 300 fighters surrendered late Wednesday. Another 36 militants gave themselves up early Thursday, apparently after they ran out of ammunition.

Palestinian officials are calling for help to relocate hundreds of families left homeless by the military attack on the refugee camp there.

The leader of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon is offering to trade an Israeli hostage for Jenin's Palestinian fighters. The Israeli businessman was seized nearly 18 months ago, just after the Palestinian intifada erupted. The circumstances of his abduction are not clear.

Elsewhere on the West Bank, Israeli tanks and attack helicopters continue to pound the old city, Nablus.