Hezbollah and Israel to discuss prisoners

Posted in Broader Middle East | 05-Sep-06 | Author: Warren Hoge| Source: International Herald Tribune

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, left, talks to reporters during a joint press conference with Qatar's First Deputy Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheik Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Al-Thani in Emiri Diwan, Doha, Qatar Monday, Sept. 4, 2006.
JIDDA Secretary General Kofi Annan said Monday that the United Nations would mediate talks on the exchange of Israeli and Hezbollah prisoners.

Annan disclosed the news in an interview on his flight to Saudi Arabia from Doha, where the government of Qatar announced it would contribute 200 to 300 troops to the UN force set up to keep the peace between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

Annan also said he had received a telephone call Sunday from the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moellem, who said his country would send a battalion of troops to guard the border with Lebanon. In Damascus last week, Annan had asked President Bashar al- Assad to help enforce the arms embargo called for in the Security Council resolution that ended the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

On the possible prisoner exchange, Annan said that he had already chosen his representative to the negotiations, that Israel had chosen its envoy and that what he called "Lebanon-Hezbollah" was in the process of selecting one.

The choice of envoys will be critical because Israel insists that it will not talk directly with Hezbollah. And even though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel has been under increasing domestic pressure to win the release of two soldiers captured by Hezbollah - and one captured by militants in the Gaza Strip - there has been no official confirmation from the government that it would engage in such talks.

Annan said the names of the three negotiators would be kept secret. Their job would be to set up the "mechanism" to bring about the release of prisoners from both sides, which he said he hoped would be the first step toward further talks between Israel and Lebanon. He also said that he would insist on control of the negotiations and no interference from outside.

"Everywhere you go, you hear rumors that this country is doing it or the other," he said. "If I'm going to take it on, my mediator should be the sole mediator." He added, "If others get in we will pull out."

From the end of the conflict on Aug. 14, Hezbollah had expressed interest in exchanging prisoners, but Israel had resisted, saying its soldiers should be returned as part of the implementation of the Security Council resolution.

Annan arrived Monday in Saudi Arabia, his eighth stop on a Middle Eastern trip aimed at shoring up support for the UN resolution that ended the 34-day war. Two critical elements of that measure were calls to disarm Hezbollah and to impose an arms embargo to prevent its rearmament.

Annan seemed eager to discuss the encouraging developments after receiving a bruising reception over the weekend from the tough-talking Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other Iranian leaders.

Tehran expressed general support for the UN resolution to Annan, he said, but the government was vague about disarming Hezbollah, which it has financed and armed in the past. And it stuck to its insistence that it would not bow to the demands of the Security Council that it cease uranium enrichment before entering negotiations with the council's five permanent members on a package of incentives.

Discussing the prisoner release, Annan said the negotiations would focus primarily on the two Israelis captured by Hezbollah, but might include a third Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. He was taken prisoner in a raid by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Annan said Monday that there had been no progress in gaining his freedom.

Qatar, a political maverick in the conservative Gulf region, maintains low- level ties with Israel. It is also an ally of the United States and has allowed it to set up a large military base.

Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said Qatar's troop contribution to the UN force in southern Lebanon was an attempt "to tell the world of the Arab presence, even modestly, in this force and to tell Israel that we believe in this decision and so we want to contribute in implementing it."

Qatar, the lone Arab country on the Security Council, is the only Arab country to have joined the force. "Qatar has relations with Israel and as a result Israel has no objection to its participation in the force," said Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, news agencies reported.

Annan said other Muslim peacekeepers would come from Indonesia and Malaysia, although Israel is on record as objecting to having Malaysian soldiers in Lebanon.

The backbone of the force, expected to reach 15,000 eventually, is European, with Italian troops making up the largest single contingent. They are to be joined by 15,000 Lebanese Army troops.

Speaking to reporters at the Doha airport, Annan also urged Israel to lift its siege of Lebanon, saying it was "unsustainable."

"We are using the UN influence to lift the embargo, especially as Lebanon is trying to rebuild," he said. "It has to be allowed to rebuild. I urge Israel to cooperate."

Israel has maintained its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, saying it was meant to prevent Hezbollah from rearming. But it has been granting permission for more commercial flights to land in Beirut.

A Qatari Airways passenger jet was allowed to land Monday. Middle East Airlines of Lebanon and Royal Jordanian have been conducting limited service to the airport.

John Kifner contributed from Beirut.