Hezbollah Leader Did Not Know Kidnap Of Soldiers Would Lead to War, He Says

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a TV interview aired yesterday that he would not have ordered the capture of two Israeli soldiers if he had known it would lead to such a war.

Guerrillas from the Islamic militant group killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two more in a cross-border raid July 12, which sparked 34 days of fighting that ended with a cease-fire on August 14.

“We did not think, even 1%, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not,” he told Lebanon’s New TV station.

He also said Italy and the United Nations had made contacts to help mediate a prisoner swap with Israel but did not specify whether they had contacted Hezbollah directly. He did not say in what capacity Italy had expressed interest — on its own or on Israel’s behalf.

Sheik Nasrallah said the Lebanese parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, was in charge of the negotiations and that the subject would be discussed during Secretary-General Annan’s visit to Beirut today.

“Some contacts” had been made to arrange a meeting between him and Mr. Annan, he said, but that was unlikely for security reasons.

“The Italians seem to be getting close and are trying to get into the subject. The United Nations is interested,” Sheik Nasrallah said. “The Israelis have acknowledged that this [issue] is headed for negotiations and a [prisoners] exchange.”

A senior Israeli government official declined to comment on such contacts, saying only that Israel “does not negotiate with terrorists” and continues to demand the unconditional release of the two soldiers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said no negotiations were being held on a prisoner release.

“Right now, no, but I expect that concerning the prisoners in the north, we shall have to wait until the Lebanese government will take charge completely over its land in accordance with the U.N. resolution,” he said.

Israeli military officials said earlier this month that Israel is holding 13 Hezbollah prisoners and the bodies of dozens of guerrillas that it could swap for the two captive soldiers but would not include any Palestinian Arab prisoners in such a deal.

Also yesterday, 245 French soldiers arrived at Beirut’s airport to help the Lebanese army rebuild bridges destroyed or damaged by Israeli airstrikes.

The troops were separate from a French contribution of 2,000 soldiers to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which was being expanded to 15,000 members under the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the Israel-Hezbollah war.

“Our job is to work jointly with the Lebanese army in rebuilding bridges. The French troops will be here for about one and a half months at least,” Lieutenant Philip Toroller, an officer of the French military mission based at the French Embassy in Beirut, said. He said the troops would go first to Damour, a coastal town south of Beirut, where they would begin work before moving to other areas in south Lebanon.

Prime Minister Olmert had received assurances from Mr. Annan that new peacekeepers would be on the ground in Lebanon within a week, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

The UNIFIL force is paid for out of the budget of the United Nations, which is made up of member states’ annual contributions, and the new expansion of the force will come out of the same budget, a former head of UNIFIL, Timur Goksel, said.

An American civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, said he raised the issue of a prisoner swap in talks with President Assad of Syria during a visit, but he did not elaborate on the Syrian leader’s response.

The New York Sun

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