Annan says to mediate between Israel, Hizbollah for release of 2 soldiers

news1.jpgBEIRUT (Reuters) — UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on Monday he would appoint a secret negotiator to mediate between Israel and Hizbollah for the release of two Israeli soldiers captured in July.

But Israeli officials said Annan’s role was to secure the release of the soldiers demanded by a UN resolution, not to mediate. Hizbollah gave a cautious response, backing only indirect negotiations to secure a prisoner exchange.

“The two sides have accepted the effort of the secretary general to help solve this problem,” Annan told a news conference in Saudi Arabia. “I will appoint a person to work secretly with the two sides … I will not announce his name today or tomorrow,” he said through an Arabic interpreter.

The release of the soldiers, whose capture by Hizbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12 sparked a 34-day war, is at the centre of a UN resolution for a permanent ceasefire on the Lebanon-Israel border.

Hizbollah wants to exchange the soldiers for Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails. Hizbollah and the Jewish state have been involved in prisoner exchanges in the past.

“A mediator is not needed,” an Israeli government official said. “The UN resolution determines that soldiers will be released unconditionally. The UN secretary general will assist and not mediate.” Israel’s official position remains that it will not enter into any negotiations to free the soldiers, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

When asked about the announcement, a senior Hizbollah official, Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, said he was not authorised to comment on any role for Annan, but added: “We agree to a basic principle which is to conduct a prisoner exchange through indirect negotiations. Who is the channel is a detail.” 

Lebanese complaint

The Lebanese government agreed to file a complaint to the UN Security Council over Israel’s nearly eight-week-old air and sea blockade despite the truce. Israel says it has kept its embargo to prevent Hizbollah from rearming.

The government also agreed to request UN    peacekeepers to help secure the country’s coast, despite reservations by Hizbollah. Germany has said it is waiting for an official Lebanese request to contribute troops to UN peacekeepers, mainly naval forces.

Qatar Airways resumed its direct service to Beirut, despite Israel’s demand that all such flights pass through Amman for security reasons. The first Qatar Airways plane landed in Beirut on Monday with 142 passengers on board.

Shipping industry newspaper Lloyd’s List will report on Tuesday that Israel was allowing certain ships, mainly oil tankers carrying petroleum product and ships ferrying aid, to enter Lebanese ports.

“Whoever submits a request and has it approved can enter,” an Israeli army spokeswoman said.

In another sign of progress, the commander of UN peacekeepers said a joint meeting with Lebanese and Israeli officers on Monday had brought closer a full Israeli troop withdrawal from south Lebanon in line with Resolution 1701.

The United Nations has said the Israeli pullout would be completed once the number of peacekeepers, which now stands at 3,100, reaches 5,000.

Major General Alain Pellegrini, commander of UN peacekeepers, said a joint meeting with Lebanese and Israeli officers put “on the right track” the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon and the deployment of Lebanese troops, backed by the UN force.

Qatar on Monday became the first Arab country to commit troops to the expanded UN force. The Gulf state, which maintains low-level ties with Israel, said it would contribute 200 to 300 troops to the UN force and sent a civilian airliner to Beirut despite the Israeli blockade.

The planned deployment, which Israel said it had no problem with, was announced by Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Thani during a visit to Doha by Annan.

Some 200 French troops left Toulon for Lebanon on Monday on board the navy ship Foudre. France has committed 2,000 troops.

Around 900 Italian troops, backed by about 150 vehicles, landed in south Lebanon at the weekend.

Italy has pledged 3,000 troops, the largest single contribution, to a UN plan to increase the number of peacekeepers in Lebanon to 15,000 to help enforce the truce. 

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