President George W. Bush again threw US support behind Israel, calling Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon a "man of peace" as aid workers picked through the rubble of his
army's attack on the West Bank.
Palestinian officials condemned the remarks as a "reward" for Sharon's "war crimes" as the troubled Middle East appeared no closer to peace despite an intensive peace mission by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan meanwhile asked the Security Council on Thursday to consider sending an armed multinational force to help end violence in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN Middle East envoy said the devastation was "horrific beyond belief" as he toured the blood-soaked ruins of the West Bank, still mostly in the grip of Israeli troops despite Bush's calls for an immediate withdrawal.
"I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office as he was briefed by Powell on his Middle East tour, which ended without a ceasefire agreement to end almost 19 months of bloodshed.
Bush said Sharon was on schedule for pulling back his troops, who launched a ferocious assault on the West Bank three weeks ago in what Israel said was a bid to crush the "infrastructure of terrorism."
Powell told reporters before leaving Jerusalem after six days of shuttling between Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that there was a schedule for the pullback but gave no specifics.
"He gave me a timetable and he's met the timetable," the US president said.
The Palestinians had told Powell there could be no hope of a long-sought truce until there was a full withdrawal from the West Bank, where Arafat has hoped to create an independent Palestinian state.
"This is a reward for state terrorism and the war crimes committed by Sharon," top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP after the Bush statement.
Israel launched its assault on March 29, two days after a suicide bomber killed 28 people on the Jewish Passover holiday. A suicide attack killed six people in Jerusalem last Friday, hours after Powell began his peace mission.
Sharon has repeatedly blamed Arafat for the waves of attacks which have left scores of Israelis dead.
Under heavy pressure from Powell, Arafat issued a statement condemning terror attacks against civilians during Powell's trip and Bush said he would hold the Palestinian leader to his words.
"Mr Arafat did condemn terror, now we hold him to account," Bush said. The Palestinian Authority "must act on its condemnation of terror."
UN chief Annan for his part said, "I believe the deployment of a multinational force deserves serious consideration."
Israel has repeatedly rejected calls for international troops on the ground but Annan said, "The situation is so dangerous that the international community has an obligation to provide this assistance."
Erakat hailed the call, saying, "This idea is the only right way to start fighting Israeli aggression."
Annan's special envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, toured the remains of the shattered Jenin refugee camp, site of the fiercest battles in Israel's West Bank campaign, and denounced the horror he saw.
"It is totally unacceptable and horrific beyond belief," he told AFP as he toured the Jenin camp.
"The stench of death is horrible," he said. "We have expert people here who have been in war zones and earthquakes and they say they have never seen anything like it."
The Palestinians claim around 500 people were massacred in Jenin, many of them women and children, and that some were summarily executed after surrendering. There were also claims of mass graves dug by Israeli bulldozers.
"The international community and the press believe these lies and don't ask for proof from the Palestinians. Where is the proof?" said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said Thursday.
Israel said the camp was a hotbed of Palestinian militants and closed off all access after invading on April 3, refusing access to aid groups and the media.
The Israeli army announced it had begun a "partial withdrawal" from the northern West Bank town of Jenin overnight but did not give further details.
Copyright 2002 AFP