UNITED NATIONS,(Reuters) – Israel told a visiting U.N. mission that it will not negotiate with Hezbollah through third parties, as in the past, for the release of its captured soldiers, a U.N. envoy told the Security Council on Friday.
In their conversations with top Israeli officials, “it was stated that the Israeli captives must be unconditionally released and that, this time, Israel was not prepared to negotiate with Hezbollah through third parties, which in the past had led to prisoner exchanges,” envoy Vijay Nambiar said.
Nambiar, head of the three-man U.N. team dispatched to the region last weekend by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said it was clear from their talks with Israeli and Lebanese leaders that there were serious obstacles to achievement of a formal cease-fire agreement anytime soon.
But he renewed Annan’s plea, delivered to the 15-nation council on Thursday, for an immediate end to the fighting, to open the door to longer-term diplomatic efforts while reducing civilian casualties and enabling relief workers to reach people in need of food, water and other urgent aid.
He said a political package able to pave the way for a durable cease-fire would have to end the Hezbollah threat against Israel while ensuring full respect by all Lebanese parties and neighbors of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“It is difficult to envisage a sustainable cease-fire without such a political framework,” Nambiar said.
Nambiar, along with U.N. Middle East envoys Alvaro de Soto and Terje Roed-Larsen, briefed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the U.N. mission’s findings before addressing the council.
Rice was expected to outline her views on the Middle East crisis later on Friday in Washington, before leaving for the region on Sunday, diplomatic sources said.
At the start of her meeting with the U.N. team, Rice reiterated concern about fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants but did not call for an end to the conflict.
“Obviously, we are all very concerned about the situation in the Middle East and want to find a way forward that will contribute to a stable and democratic and peaceful Middle East,” she said as she posed for pictures with the U.N. team.
The United States has resisted international pressure to support U.N. calls to end or at least suspend the fighting.
The crisis began when Hezbollah last week captured two Israeli soldiers, prompting an intense military response by Israel, which in turn triggered a rain of Hezbollah missiles on northern Israel.
In his address to the Security Council, Annan called for an expanded peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to help Beirut’s army control territory along the Israeli border where Hezbollah guerrillas now have de facto control.
He blamed Hezbollah for holding “an entire nation hostage” and faulted Israel for using excessive force. Nambiar said more than 300 Lebanese and 34 Israelis had been killed so far, while more than 500 Lebanese and about 200 Israelis had been wounded.