'Serious' talks over captured Israeli soldiers

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The Independent Online

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said "serious negotiations" were under way over the fate of two Israeli soldiers whose 12 July capture by the militant group sparked a month of brutal fighting in Lebanon.

In a three-hour taped television interview last night, Nasrallah said a negotiator appointed by United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan had been meeting Hezbollah and Israeli officials.

He would not give details about the negotiations, but told Hezbollah's TV station: "We have reached a stage of exchanging ideas, proposals or conditions."

Nasrallah has offered to exchange the two for Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, but Israel has repeatedly refused. Although the UN 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 his first appearance since speaking at a "victory" rally in south Beirut in September.

The black-turbaned cleric also said his militant group had reinforced its arsenal of rockets - numbering some 33,000 - and warned that any attempts by an international force to disarm it would transform Lebanon into another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Despite attempts to keep arms from being smuggled to the guerrilla group and increased international pressure for it to lay down its weapons, Hezbollah had "regained all its vigour", he said.

"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.

The 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 with a ceasefire on August 14.

The United Nations and the Lebanese government have condemned Israel for its repeated flights over its northern neighbour, saying such actions break the ceasefire. But Israel has said it would continue the overflights because Lebanon had failed to prevent arms from being smuggled to Hezbollah.

The UN-brokered ceasefire also calls for the militant group to be disarmed, but Hezbollah has refused to give up its weapons. Neither the beefed-up UN peacekeeping force, which currently numbers about 7,300, nor some 15,000 Lebanese troops patrolling a buffer zone in south Lebanon have the mandate or political will to take Hezbollah's weapons by force.

Nasrallah said his group had been arming itself since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, and now possessed more than 33,000 rockets, up from the more than 20,000 he said Hezbollah had on September 22.

"We have been preparing ourselves in the past six years and never stopped prepping ourselves. We now possess everything that we had before" the war, he said.

Nasrallah also expressed concern that deteriorating security could force Lebanon's Western-backed government to ask UN peacekeepers to take stronger actions than their current mandate dictated.

"This is dangerous and will lead to transforming Lebanon into another Afghanistan and another Iraq," he said.

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, near UN offices, injured six people, broke windows and damaged cars.

Many people believe the attacks had political or sectarian overtones, but no suspects have been named publicly.

Nasrallah also said he welcomed a call by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, to hold talks next week on forming a national unity government. But he warned that if talks failed, Hezbollah would be forced "to go to the streets".

"They will go to the streets, God willing ... not only to demand a national unity government, but to call for early parliamentary elections. This is our natural right," he said.

Hezbollah officials and Lebanese Christian opposition leader General Michel Aoun have been calling for the formation of a new national unity government to replace prime minister Fuad Saniora's regime.

Western-backed Saniora has repeatedly rejected the idea of a new government, saying his Cabinet achieved much for the country and did its best to stop the war.

During the interview, the Hezbollah leader also accused America of being responsible for continued violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and predicted that the US would be forced to leave the region in the future, just like it left Vietnam after the war there three decades ago.

"They will leave the Middle East, Arab and Islamic worlds just as they left Vietnam, and I advise those who are counting on them to draw conclusion from the Vietnam experience," he said.