JERUSALEM – Israeli troops are leaving the West Bank villages of Yatta, Qabatya and Samua, the defense ministry said late Wednesday.
The withdrawals come less than a day before Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Israel. America has pressured Israel to pull troops out of West Bank cities and end a 13-day offensive that aims to wipe out Palestinian militant networks.
The defense ministry said in a news release said that forces will begin leaving the villages on Wednesday night.
On Tuesday, Israeli troops pulled out of the West Bank cities of Tulkarem and Qalqiliya. The defense minister's statement said that the operations there "dealt a heavy blow to the terrorist infrastructure" and involved seizures of weapons, the arrests of wanted suspects and "combat with armed terrorist elements."
Powell insisted Wednesday that his peacekeeping mission was not threatened by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to halt military incursions in Palestinian areas.
"My mission is not in the least in jeopardy," Powell told a news conference shortly after Sharon said the military offensive in the West Bank will continue, despite strong U.S. objections, until Palestinian militias have been defeated.
Powell, who arrives in Jerusalem on Thursday, said he still intends to meet with both Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He said that, despite criticism of Arafat, he remains "the leader of the Palestinian people," and a key player in any effort to secure a truce.