World / Middle East

Hezbollah says in talks on soldiers

(AP) Updated: 2006-11-01 08:35

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Tuesday that "serious negotiations" were under way over the fate of two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture by his militant group sparked a month of brutal fighting in Lebanon.

In a three-hour taped television interview, Nasrallah said a negotiator appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been meeting with Hezbollah and Israeli officials.

Hezbollah says in talks on soldiers
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah waves during his speech at a rally in Beirut September 22, 2006. Nasrallah said on Tuesday indirect negotiations between his group and Israel over a prisoner exchange had begun through a UN.-appointed mediator. [Reuters]

He would not provide details about the negotiations, but told Hezbollah's TV station, "We have reached a stage of exchanging ideas, proposals or conditions."

Officials from the Israeli Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry were not available for immediate comment.

Nasrallah has offered to exchange the two Israeli soldiers for Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, but Israel has repeatedly refused. Although the UN resolution that ended the 34-day war called for the soldiers' unconditional release, Israel has exchanged prisoners in the past.

"They are serious negotiations ... It's better to keep it away from the media ... this issue is on track. We are moving ahead. How long does it take? It's up to the nature of the negotiations," Nasrallah said.

In the same interview, Nasrallah warned that any attempts by an international force to disarm Hezbollah would transform Lebanon into another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Nasrallah said there are fears that the beefed up UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon would be transformed into a multinational force whose mandate would be to disarm Hezbollah.

"This is dangerous and will lead to transforming Lebanon into another Afghanistan and another Iraq," Nasrallah said in taped interview on Hezbollah's television station Al-Manar.

A UN-brokered cease-fire that ended the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah on Aug. 14 does not give a direct mandate to the peacekeepers to take Hezbollah's weapons by force, unless the guerrillas are encountered in the buffer zone along the border with Israel.

A resolution passed by the UN in 2004 did call for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. But Hezbollah has refused to lay down its arms, and the 15,000 Lebanese troops patrolling the buffer zone in south Lebanon along with UN peacekeepers don't have the political will to take the group's weapons by force.

Nasrallah expressed concern that deteriorating security could force Lebanon's Western-backed government to ask UN peacekeepers to take stronger actions than their current mandate dictates.

Since the war ended, Beirut has witnessed a string of minor attacks, including a grenade fired at a downtown building that houses a dance club. The explosion, which was near UN offices, injured six people, broke windows and damaged cars.

Many people believe the attacks had political or sectarian overtones, but no suspects have been publicly named.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah, despite attempts to keep arms from being smuggled to the guerrilla group, has "regained all its vigor." The group has 33,000 rockets, he said - up from the 22,000 he said his guerrillas had on Sept. 22.

"The resistance in Lebanon is strong, cohesive, able and ready, and they will not be able to undermine it no matter what the challenges are," he said.

The Hezbollah leader also accused the United States of being responsible for continued violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying US policy in the region has failed.

"Afghanistan is a failure ... In Iraq, there is clear failure on the security, military and political levels ... Who shoulders responsibility? It's the American administration and the occupation forces in control of the situation," he said.

Nasrallah said America's plans in the Middle East face "failure, frustration and a state of collapse," and predicted the U.S. would be forced to leave the region in the future - just like it left Vietnam after the war there three decades ago.

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