BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – Hezbollah’s leader said Tuesday that he accepts U.N. mediation with Israel on a possible prisoner swap and a special envoy will launch the talks next week.
But in an interview with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed not to approve any prisoner exchange deal unless it included the release of Samir Kantar, a Lebanese man held in the killing of three Israelis during an attack in 1979.
Nasrallah’s remarks came more than a week after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said during a visit to Saudi Arabia that he would appoint a mediator for indirect talks between Israel and the Islamic militant group on the release of two abducted Israeli soldiers.
Israel has rejected calls for a prisoner swap to secure the soldiers’ freedom, calling instead for their unconditional release. The U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended more than a month of Israel-Hezbollah fighting also calls for an unconditional release.
“So far, the negotiation channel has been settled. The channel that has been agreed on or accepted is the United Nations via Secretary-General Kofi Annan who has announced that he will assign a European personality to undertake the mediation and contacts between us and the Israelis,” Nasrallah said in the interview with Al-Jazeera.
He said the U.N. envoy, whom he did not name, had been expected to arrive last week, but should come next week.
“So far, no talks have begun,” he said.
Hezbollah guerrillas captured the two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12 that sparked the fighting between the group and Israeli forces. The war ended Aug. 14 under a cease-fire and Israeli troops still occupy positions in southern Lebanon while they wait for a beefed-up United Nations peacekeeping force to deploy there.
On the same day the two Israelis were captured, Nasrallah told a news conference that the two would be released only through a prisoner exchange with Israel.
Nasrallah ducked a question Tuesday on whether Hezbollah would demand only the release of Kantar and two other Lebanese in exchange for the Israelis. Before this summer’s crisis, he had called for other Arab prisoners to be freed.
Nasrallah said he told Hezbollah officials assigned to negotiate with the U.N. envoy to obtain a promise from Israel that it would not to leak any details of the talks to the media. He warned that any leaks by the Israelis would lead to the suspension of the talks.
He insisted that a prisoner swap would only be possible if it includes Kantar’s release.
“Absolutely not. You’re asking me about a deal without Samir (Kantar), I tell you ‘No’,” the Hezbollah leader said emphatically.
Kantar is serving prison terms totaling 542 years for killing three Israelis during an attack in 1979. Israel says it will not release Kantar until it receives information about Ron Arad, an air force navigator who went missing after his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. His fate is unknown.
Kantar is one of three Lebanese that Hezbollah has long demanded released. The others are Nasim Nisr, a Lebanese-born Israeli captured for having contacts with Hezbollah, and Yehia Skaff, who was detained in 1978 while taking part in a Palestinian militant attack that killed 35 Israelis.
Israel and Hezbollah have had prisoner swaps in the past.
Nasrallah, in the Al-Jazeera interview, also condemned British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Lebanon.
Along with President Bush, Blair refused to call for a quick cease-fire during the 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. More than 850 people were killed in Lebanon, most of them civilians.
“Tony Blair is a partner in the killing, and then you bring him to my house to my family and you give him a great welcome. Don’t those people have feelings?” Nasrallah said.