Israel says offensive to continue, four Palestinians killed


Prime Minister Mr Ariel Sharon said today Israel's most widespread ground offensive against the Palestinian Authority would end only when it was satisfied Mr Yasser Arafat was cracking down on terrorism.

Four Palestinians were killed as Israeli tanks and troops continued to deploy in and around six West Bank cities in the wake of the assassination by radical Palestinian gunmen last Wednesday of a far-right Israeli cabinet minister.

In Bethlehem, a Palestinian civilian and a police officer were killed and at least six others were hurt during gun battles. A Palestinian man was shot dead in nearby Beit Jala and a Palestinian woman was killed outside Jenin.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to topple the Palestinian Authority of President Arafat.

Israel denied the allegation and said the aim of the operation - its biggest since interim peace accords were signed in 1993 - was to stop Palestinian militants from reaching its cities and carrying out attacks.

Despite its efforts to bolster Arab support for its anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, the United States has refrained from making a direct appeal for an Israeli withdrawal - an apparent sign of displeasure with Mr Arafat.

"Israel has no interest in remaining in places where the army has entered," Mr Sharon was quoted as saying in a communique after the weekly cabinet meeting today.

"The amount of time the army stays in these areas depends, to a large extent, on Arafat and the actions he takes to prevent terrorism," Sharon said.

Arafat said yesterday Israel wanted to escalate militarily.

It is pursuing this plan, in direct challenge to all international efforts to calm the situation and to revive the peace process, he said.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke by telephone with a series of key figures involved in the Middle East conflict today while at an Asia-Pacific forum in China, a senior State Department official told reporters.

These were Mr Arafat, Mr Sharon, European Union foreign policy chief MR avier Solana, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mr Ahmed Maher and Jordan's King Abdullah.

He gave no details of the discussions but said Mr Powell's basic message was: "We've got to find a way forward