UNITED NATIONS — In a departure from language used by the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General Annan yesterday linked the issue of releasing Israeli soldiers to freeing Lebanese terrorists held by Israel. Hezbollah demanded a prisoner swap when it kidnapped the two soldiers on July 12, launching a month-long war.
Mr. Annan, speaking to the press in Beirut, retreated from several demands the Security Council made on Hezbollah and went as far as to equate the conduct of Israeli army soldiers with that of terrorists serving the Taliban regime.
"You have to talk with those with the guns to stop shooting, whether they are Israelis or whether they are Taliban or anybody else," he said, referring to the United Nations's need to deliver assistance to victims at times of war.
Despite those gestures toward Lebanese Hezbollah supporters — and though he met with the Shiite speaker of Lebanon's parliament, Nabih Berri, and with Hezbollah's Cabinet minister, Muhammed Fneish, as well as Prime Minister Siniora — a Shiite crowd booed the U.N. chief as he visited a hard-hit Beirut neighborhood.
Surrounded by armed guards, Mr. Annan was forced to retreat to his car after a crowd in the Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut neighborhood booed and heckled him, according to press reports.
A day after Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in an interview that German, Italian, and U.N. officials are mediating in a possible swap for the Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Mr. Annan offered his organization's services as intermediary.
He then dropped a key provision in Security Council resolution 1701 that called for the immediate release of the two Israelis — whose kidnapping was the cause for the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah — without reference to an immediate release of any other prisoners.
At America's insistence, under the terms of the resolution, the release must be "unconditional." The document also deals with the fates of the two Israelis and the prisoners in Israeli jails separately.
But Mr. Annan told a Beirut press conference yesterday that the United Nations will "play a role if we are required to do so" in negotiations for the release.
Abandoning the resolution's requirement that the release to be unconditional, he publicly called for "the abducted soldiers to be freed, and as a first step to be transferred to the auspices" of the Red Cross.
"We must also address the issue of all other prisoners," he added, alluding to terrorists held in Israeli jails whose release Hezbollah has demanded.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Israel said yesterday that resolution 1701, which led to the current lull in the fighting in Lebanon, will not end the war unless the Israeli soldiers are released. "So long as this issue with the two soldiers is not solved, the whole thing is of little significance," she said in Germany.
Germany's current foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, reportedly has been instrumental in past secret negotiations that led to Israel-Hezbollah exchanges of prisoners and bodies. In contrast to Mr. Annan, who has vied publicly for a role as an intermediary, Mr. Steinmeier denied yesterday that there was any request, "either from the Israeli or the Lebanese side," for his country to negotiate a prisoner swap.
Mr. Annan is scheduled to visit the headquarters of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon today and then cross the border to Israel, where he is expected to meet with relatives of the kidnapped soldiers. Yesterday, the Goldwasser and Regev families sent letters to the 15 members of the Security Council reminding them of their obligation under resolution 1701 to secure the unconditional release of the soldiers.
Even before yesterday's appearance in Beirut, Mr. Annan had made clear that his interpretation of resolution 1701 differs from that of Israeli leaders and several American politicians.
He has said the multinational force will not enforce past resolutions calling for the disarming of Hezbollah without its consent — as Israel has urged — and that disarming will be done only as part of a political agreement.
Mr. Annan also has demanded that Israel "immediately lift the blockade on Lebanon."
Israeli officials have said the blockade they imposed during the war will not be lifted without international guarantees that Hezbollah will not be rearmed.
"We have no plans" to deploy troops under U.N. command along the Syria-Lebanon border, Mr. Annan said yesterday. "I said not long ago it is not their mandate." Nevertheless, he demanded that Israel lift what he called its "siege."