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Israel Pulls Out of Another W. Bank City

Mideast: Troops' withdrawal from Ramallah leaves two towns occupied. Five Palestinians, army officer die in two incidents.


JERUSALEM — Israeli troops pulled out of the West Bank town of Ramallah before dawn today in what Israel said was the latest move in a staged withdrawal from major West Bank cities.

The army occupied half a dozen towns in the West Bank after Palestinian gunmen assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last month. The seizures were part of the largest-scale military operation in Palestinian-controlled territories since Israel began handing land over to the Palestinian Authority under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

In Ramallah, the center of government for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, tanks have been seen on the streets for weeks, and thousands of residents have lived under frequent curfews during the army's occupation. In a statement, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that Israeli troops will continue to surround the city and that Israel will hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for preventing attacks on Israelis by militants operating from Ramallah.

The United States has been pushing Israel to pull out of all the West Bank towns it occupied, but troops and tanks are still inside the northern towns of Jenin and Tulkarm. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that Israel will withdraw from towns where it can strike deals with local security heads to ensure quiet. But he has also made it clear that Israel will reenter Palestinian-controlled territories if it deems that necessary, and he told a committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, this week that Israel's policy of assassinating wanted militants will continue.

The pullout came hours after a shootout near the West Bank city of Nablus left three Palestinian gunmen and an Israeli army officer dead Tuesday and brought a Palestinian demand for an international inquiry into how the gunmen died.

In another incident, two militants with the Palestine Liberation Organization's Fatah movement died when the car they were in exploded Tuesday evening in Jenin. Palestinians described the men as brigade commanders and said they had picked up the car Tuesday in the Israeli Arab town of Umm al Fahm.

Palestinians blamed Israel for the blast, saying it was another in a series of deadly attacks that have targeted militants. The Bush administration has condemned the killings. An Israeli army spokeswoman said she was checking the report.

The violence came as Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, attending a conference in Brussels, said he was trying to formulate a peace plan with Sharon.

According to media here, Peres is proposing that Israel allow the Palestinians to declare a state in the Gaza Strip before negotiating the future of the West Bank and disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees--and their descendants--displaced when Israel was created in 1948. Peres, who often clashes with his more conservative boss over the pursuit of peace, said he is trying to narrow gaps between himself and Sharon on the outlines of the plan.

Col. Yossi Adiri, commander of Israeli forces in the Nablus area, said the Tuesday afternoon firefight began when three soldiers on foot, backed by a jeep, approached three Palestinians near the village of Tel during a patrol. The Palestinians drew weapons and opened fire at close range, Adiri said in a statement read by the army spokeswoman. The gunmen fired 60 bullets at the troops, according to Adiri, mortally wounding the officer and injuring three others before two of the gunmen were shot dead.

Backup forces arrived and chased the third Palestinian, who also was shot and killed, said Adiri, who came with the reinforcements. He strongly denied Palestinian allegations that the gunmen were wounded and then executed by soldiers after the officer was shot.

Ambulance driver Kamal Hinawi of the Red Crescent Society said that he and a nurse arrived at the scene after villagers reported the gunfight and that people had been wounded. Hinawi said he saw seven Israeli soldiers on a ridge above him and heard gunfire exchanged. The soldiers, he said, brought a wounded officer to him. Hinawi said he pronounced the Israeli dead.

Hinawi said the soldiers told him that there were wounded Palestinians on the other side of the ridge but would not let him go to them.

"Then they told us to go away," Hinawi said in a telephone interview. "They went back up the ridge. We heard a few shots. Then the officer came back and told us: 'The three terrorists are now dead.' After 20 minutes, they allowed us to go up the hill. We saw three dead Palestinians."

Adiri denied that his forces had asked Hinawi to treat the injured officer, who was evacuated by helicopter to an Israeli hospital, where he was declared dead.

The Palestinian Media Center, a branch of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Information, said the Palestinian leadership was calling for the international community to investigate "the crime that Israeli occupation soldiers committed today near Tel village in the Nablus area."

An Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem, charged Tuesday that Israeli troops used excessive force in a raid last month on the Palestinian village of Beit Rima. Israeli troops entered the village, outside Ramallah, before dawn Oct. 24 in search of militants who allegedly were involved in the assassination of Zeevi the week before.


Maher Abukhater in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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