JERUSALEM (AP) _ The United States will remain ``very actively engaged'' in Mideast truce efforts, Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Cheney also said he is willing to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but did not say when such talks would be held. Cheney has drawn angry complaints from the Palestinians for not meeting with Arafat during his 24-hour visit to Israel.
Sharon, meanwhile, said that once a cease-fire is in place, he will lift a travel ban on Arafat. Cheney had carried a request from Arab leaders that he push the Israelis to allow Arafat to leave Palestinian areas to attend an Arab summit in Beirut, Lebanon, later this month.
Spurred on by the U.S. peace mission, Israeli troops pulled out of the Bethlehem area early Tuesday, edging closer to a cease-fire with the Palestinians in the 18-month-old Mideast conflict
The pullback came after Cheney arrived to bolster the efforts of U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni.
In continuing violence, two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated an army training area near the West Bank town of Nablus in a pre-dawn raid Tuesday and opened fire on soldiers conducting exercises, the army said. An army officer was killed and three soldiers were wounded before other soldiers shot dead the attackers.
But in the most promising sign since Zinni arrived last week, Israel pulled back after midnight from the West Bank town of Bethlehem _ traditional birthplace of Jesus _ and neighboring Beit Jalla, El-Khader and the Aida refugee camp.
In a statement, the Israeli military said its forces pulled out of the Bethlehem area and parts of the northern Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians demanded at security talks Monday afternoon that Israel pull out of all areas under complete Palestinian autonomy _ about 17 percent of the West Bank _ before a cease-fire could be declared.
Palestinian West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub said the pullback from Bethlehem was not enough. He said Israel must complete its withdrawal from two other towns, Tulkarem and Qalqilya. Israel said it had pulled out of the two towns last week.
The Bethlehem pullout ended one of the largest Israeli military operations in decades and takes Israel out of the more than a half-dozen Palestinian towns and cities it entered this month in a search for Palestinian militants. Earlier, they pulled back from the other West Bank Palestinian population centers.