BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said 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 Tuesday a negotiator appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been meeting with Hezbollah and Israeli officials.
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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N.-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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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.
Nasrallah’s interview was broadcast hours after Israeli warplanes staged mock raids over south Beirut and two southern Lebanese towns in the strongest show of force since the Israel-Hezbollah war ended.
The U.N. and the Lebanese government have condemned Israel for its repeated flights over its northern neighbor, saying such actions violate the cease-fire. But Israel has said it would continue the flights because Lebanon has failed to prevent arms from being smuggled to Hezbollah. The Hezbollah leader also accused the United States of being responsible for continued violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying U.S. 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.
Nasrallah also welcomed a call by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, to hold talks next week on forming a national unity government. He warned that if talks fail, Hezbollah would “go to the streets” to demand a unity government and call for early parliamentary elections. Hezbollah officials and Lebanese Christian opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun have been calling for the formation of a new national unity government to replace Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s regime. The Western-backed Seniora has repeatedly rejected the idea of a new government, contending that his Cabinet achieved much for the country and did its best to stop the war.