Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin today put his full support behind the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-allied militia in southern Lebanon, and sharply criticized the U.N. peace-keeping force there, saying it bore "direct responsibility" for the fate of more than 20 U.N. soldiers kidnaped by the militia in a raid on Friday.
At a news conference following his return from a visit to the United States, Rabin accused the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) of triggering the kidnaping by earlier "disarming" 11 SLA militiamen and then "abandoning" them to the rival Shiite Moslem Amal militia, which is now holding the 11 captive.
"I take an extremely grave view of the behavior of UNIFIL in this incident," Rabin said, adding that U.N. officials bore "direct responsibility" for the fate of the 11 militiamen held by Amal and of the Finnish U.N. soldiers abducted in retaliation by the South Lebanon Army.
In Washington, spokesman Joe Reap said the State Department had no comment on Rabin's remarks and he would not say whether the United States is involved in any efforts to gain release of the U.N. soldiers. Reap noted that on Friday the State Department had said "there is no justification for kidnapings" in the area and that Washington deplores "any acts of violence" against the U.N. troops.
Rabin is the highest ranking Israeli official to support the militia publicly in its confrontation with the U.N. force, with which Israel long has been at odds.
While 21 Finnish soldiers were now said to remain in captivity, however, the SLA released a French officer after top-level Israeli intervention, the French Defense Ministry said.
The officer, Lt. Col. Jean-Michel Bilendjan, had been attempting to negotiate the release of the Finns when he, too, was taken hostage, Reuter reported. A French Defense Ministry statement said Bilendjan was freed after French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas informed Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the incident and Peres contacted Antoine Lahad, the SLA commander.
Rabin also made clear today that Israel hopes the hostage dispute will lead to at least de facto recognition by the U.N. peace-keepers of the SLA as a legitimate security force in the area. He said it was "unthinkable" for the U.N. force to favor Amal over the SLA and that he would raise these issues with U.N. Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart when he visits Israel this week.
The U.N. force, sent to southern Lebanon by the Security Council in 1978, recognizes none of Lebanon's many militias as legitimate security forces but has been accused by Israel of siding with Moslem and Palestinian forces against the largely Christian militias that act as Israel's proxies.
Three Finnish soldiers of the U.N. force were released late last night, but according to Timur Goksel, the U.N. spokesman in southern Lebanon, 21 others were still being held by the South Lebanon Army.
Goksel said that two Finnish soldiers were being held in Qantara in southern Lebanon. The other 19, who had been held in Aadaisse, near the Israeli border, were transferred to an unknown location today, he said.
The 11 SLA militiamen are being held by Amal in Tyre. Amal leaders have said they will be released if Israel frees Amal militiamen it holds prisoner or orders the SLA to abandon its defense of Jezzin, a Christian stronghold in southern Lebanon that has been threatened by Moslem and Palestinian forces.
Peres reported to Israel's Cabinet today on the affair. Later, Yossi Beilin, the Cabinet secretary, reiterated Israel's pledge to ensure the safety of the captive U.N. soldiers and suggested that the government here would use its influence over the SLA to resolve the dispute.
"Israel will do whatever it can to solve this problem," Beilin said.
The SLA is trained, equipped and financed by Israel and is designed to act as the main security force in a "security zone" Israel has declared just north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
From the outset of the dispute on Friday, Israeli officials have supported the SLA's charge that the incident began when a Finnish U.N. unit turned over the 11 militiamen to Amal. They contend that at a minimum there was U.N. complicity in the "transfer" of the militiamen to Amal.
Rabin said he has "every reason to believe" that the Finnish unit, "either by local initiative or following orders from above," disarmed the 11 militiamen to make them easy targets for Amal to capture.
He said Israel would not release any of the Amal militiamen it holds to resolve the dispute. He said Israel "is not in control" of the SLA and that both it and Amal should be allowed to operate in portions of southern Lebanon.
Israeli military officials announced Sunday that, beginning Monday, they are barring journalists from entering southern Lebanon, apparently to prevent them from covering negotiations to free the Finns, Reuter reported.
U.N. and Finnish officials have said that the 11 militiamen deserted from the SLA, but they have not said why they were turned over to Amal.
In Helsinki, Maj. Gen. Pertti Jokinen of Finland's defense staff said that "these men came to us as deserters and asked for our help to travel farther west -- help which they were afforded," but he admitted that they had not asked to go to Amal, United Press International reported.
Asked how long it might take to get the troops released, Jokinen said, "It all very much depends on whether all parties accept the findings of the Red Cross commission, which has gone to interview the 11 SLA men who are now in the hands of the Amal militia." He said he felt certain that the Red Cross commission would reach the same conclusion on why they were now in Amal custody as the Finnish contingent had originally maintained.
Finnish Foreign Minister Paavo Vayrynen said: "The situation remains serious until all the men have been released. We trust the promises of Israel on the one hand and those of the SLA on the other hand that the safety of the men is not in jeopardy."
The United Nations reportedly has ordered an investigation, but Goksel said there would not be a thorough examination of the origins of the dispute until the U.N. soldiers were freed.
"We can't act under a threat. It would set a very bad precedent," he said.