Hizbollah revels in Israeli colonel kidnapping

Terror group's capture of airforce reservist in Switzerland raises tensions still further ahead of crunch summit at Sharm el-Sheikh
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The Independent Online

It started at 10am yesterday when Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the black-turbaned chairman of Hizbollah, appeared on the guerrilla movement's Lebanese television station "Manar" (Lighthouse) to claim the capture of a fourth Israeli, a colonel no less, who was seized in what Nasrallah described as "a complicated security operation".

It started at 10am yesterday when Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the black-turbaned chairman of Hizbollah, appeared on the guerrilla movement's Lebanese television station "Manar" (Lighthouse) to claim the capture of a fourth Israeli, a colonel no less, who was seized in what Nasrallah described as "a complicated security operation".

He was self-confident, almost gleeful, talking to an audience which stood to applaud his announcement. The newly-imprisoned Israeli was, he said, "an Israeli army officer". By dusk, the rival television station of parliament speaker Nabih Berri was giving the name of Hizbollah's latest hostage: Elhanan Tannenbaum, 54, a Swiss businessman and reservist airforce colonel, captured in Lausanne, Switzerland, whose son had "lost contact" with him a week ago.

From that moment, the dark and sinister intelligence world of the Middle East spawned a dozen stories. Hizbollah had captured a Mossad agent in Beirut. He was a plain-clothes Israeli army colonel captured in the south Lebanese village of Kfar Shouba. He was an Arabic-speaking Israeli Jew - or an Arab Israeli - who had entered Beirut as a tourist. He was - this from an Israeli source - a former officer in Israel's now defunct South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia who may have been "arrested" by the Hizbollah while visiting "friends" in Lebanon. SLA intelligence officers have been given Israeli passports.

Lebanese intelligence - usually reliable in these circumstances - said that the "colonel" was an Israeli officer sent to Beirut to discover the whereabouts of the three Israeli soldiers captured during a Hizbollah military attack on the Shebaa farms area of the Lebanese-Israeli border nine days ago; he was the advance guard of an Israeli commando unit which would rescue the three Israelis from an underground prison.

In any event, the capture of a fourth Israeli was bound to increase two things: the domestic stature of the Hizbollah and the tension accompanying today's Palestinian-Israeli-American summit at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. If the story was correct - and Hizbollah has an unhappy habit of telling the truth on such occasions - the Israelis were trying to grab back their soldiers in advance of any negotiations for a prisoner exchange.

The Hizbollah are demanding the release of 19 Lebanese prisoners held as hostages in Israel - including Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid and Mustapha Dirani, both Hizbollah supporters - in return for the three soldiers (two Jews and a Druze) who surrendered to their guerrillas after a firefight of 15 minutes just over a week ago. Lebanese army armoured vehicles line the Beirut seafront each night to fight off an Israeli commando rescue raid. The Hizbollah knows very well that Israel would put agents into Lebanon in advance of any such operation.

At this point, questions - rather than facts - dominate the story. Are the three Israeli soldiers still alive? Are they held in Beirut or in southern Lebanon? Does the addition of a fourth prisoner - always supposing Nasrallah's statement is true - mean there would be a "dual" exchange?

The three soldiers were taken from Shebaa in a series of vehicles nine days ago. But UN peace-keeping troops who found the first vehicle, a black Range Rover, discovered blood in two areas of the the car. Was one of the soldiers wounded? Or two? The Range Rover, in the Hizbollah's desperation to flee the area of the battle, collided with a wall and the prisoners were moved to a Nissan which then broke down. But the Hizbollah had more than 12 vehicles near the border, and the three Israeli soldiers were taken in a third car deep into Lebanon.

The UN was not happy to discover evidence that the guerrillas had initially tried to disguise themselves as UN forces: mobile phones, uniforms, imitations of UN registration plates and, apparently, UN blue berets. They also learned that 400 Hizbollah guerrilla fighters were waiting in the neighbouring villages in preparation for an Israeli ground offensive - a trap the Israelis did not fall into.

When Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, arrived in Beirut last Thursday, he refused to meet Sayed Nasrallah unless the Hizbollah gave the International Red Cross or the UN access to the prisoners. Henri Fournier, the senior Red Cross delegate in Beirut, confirms that no such offer has been received. But by that time, the hostage-taking - as usual in Beirut - had become a bazaar.

Not only did the Hizbollah want the 19 prisoners - four of whom are believed to have asked to stay in Israel - but the Syrians were said to be demanding the return of a Syrian Druze air force pilot who defected to Israel (along with his Mig jet) 10 years ago. Mr Annan confirmed to me on a visit to the Iranian embassy in Beirut that the Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, had asked him to seek the release of four Iranians - two diplomats, a Revolutionary Guard commander and a journalist, who were seized by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist militia allies at a road-block near the town of Jbeil (Byblos) in 1982. Pity, therefore, the poor UN Secretary General.

But the Lebanese prisoners are alive and, visited briefly by the Red Cross in Israel, well. Were the Israelis planning a sea-borne raid to grab their three soldiers before negotiations began for a swap? In the 1970s, the Israelis made frequent raids on Beirut. One was led by a young Israeli army officer named Ehud Barak.

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