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Israeli Troops Withdraw from Ramallah - 2002-05-01

Israeli army sources say tanks and troops have begun withdrawing from the West Bank city of Ramallah, as the five-month long military blockade around Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat comes to an end.

Under cover of darkness, Israeli tanks and troops began their pull back from Ramallah, ending the siege around Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat's headquarters.

The withdrawal began shortly after a convoy of U.S. and British diplomatic vehicles transferred six men wanted by Israel from Mr. Arafat's compound to a Palestinian prison in Jericho.

When the convoy arrived at the prison, hundreds of Palestinian supporters greeted the men with cheers and whistles.

U.S. and British wardens in Jericho will monitor the prisoner's confinement.

The transfer of the men was a critical component of an agreement to lift the Israeli blockade around the Palestinian leader.

Under the U.S. brokered deal, Israel agreed that its troops would leave in a dramatic resolution to the standoff.

Chairman Arafat has been under virtual house arrest since last December.

Four of the prisoners transferred have been convicted by a Palestinian military court for the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister last October.

The fifth is the political leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the group which has claimed responsibility for the murder.

The sixth man is a Palestinian official accused by Israel of bankrolling a weapons shipment seized by Israeli commandos earlier this year.

The end of Mr. Arafat's confinement will resolve one of several complicated confrontations in the Middle East conflict, but daily violence continues to make moves toward a cease-fire more difficult.

Palestinians say at least five people have been killed, including a young girl, in clashes between militants and Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army says the violence in Gaza began when a roadside bomb was detonated near an Israeli armored vehicle.

The Israeli military says soldiers spotted the Palestinians responsible for setting off the bomb and killed one of them.

Palestinian witnesses say exchanges of fire killed four other people, including the girl.

Two more Palestinians have emerged from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, including one who was wounded by Israeli soldiers surrounding the basilica.

Up to 200 people, including Palestinian gunmen, Christian clerics and other civilians, remain in the shrine, which is built over the place where tradition says Jesus was born.