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SLUG: 2-288415 Israel / Palestinians (L)








INTRO: Israel's military offensive in the West Bank continues despite U-S and international pressure to end it. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told U-S President George Bush he would speed up the campaign, known as Defensive Shield, but gave no date for its completion. Correspondent Laurie Kassman reports from Jerusalem.

TEXT: Israeli troops and Palestinian militants are battling for a fifth day in and around Jenin and Nablus.

Fighting also continues in other West bank cities, including Ramallah and the biblical town of Bethlehem, where Israeli troops surround the Church of the Nativity and dozens of Palestinian gunmen hiding inside. Talk are continuing to try to end the stand-off, now in its sixth day.

There is little sign that Israel's military is easing up on its offensive across the West Bank ten days after it began. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised U-S President George Bush he will speed up the military operation -- Defensive Shield -- but gives no time limit for the military campaign to finish.

A statement released after a telephone conversation Saturday night between the two leaders says Mr. Sharon acknowledged the American desire to see the action end quickly. But the statement goes on to say Israel is operating under "difficult conditions" in towns and villages in which, the statement says, there are weapons, explosives and armed terrorists.

President Bush is sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to add his political weight to ceasefire efforts. Palestinian officials have complained that Mr. Powell will not arrive in Israel until the end of the week and have called on him to come sooner.

The European Union's envoy in Israel has called on the government to issue clear orders to respect the safe passage of ambulances and medics trying to help the injured and evacuate the dead. Palestinian rescue teams complain that Israel's military is preventing them from reaching those in need.

And on Sunday, a group of international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, called for international sanctions against Israel if it does not immediately withdraw its forces from the West Bank. (Signed)


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