Israel urged the United Nations today to meet the demands of the South Lebanon Army to gain the release of 21 Finnish soldiers held hostage in southern Lebanon by the Israeli-backed militia.
At the same time, Israeli officials also suggested that they are willing to consider new arrangements granting a broader role to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) provided that it agrees to recognize and work closely with the South Lebanon Army after the hostage dispute is resolved.
David Kimche, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, met this morning with ambassadors from most of the countries that supply troops to UNIFIL and diplomats from countries represented in the U.N. Security Council that have diplomatic relations with Israel.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Kimche urged acceptance of the demand of Antoine Lahad, the commander of the South Lebanon Army, that 11 of his militiamen who are now in the hands of the rival Shiite Moslem militia Amal be brought to a "neutral site" to meet with him. The purpose of the meeting would be to determine whether the 11 militiamen defected to Amal, as U.N. officials in southern Lebanon maintain, or were captured by the militia with the help of Finnish soldiers from UNIFIL, as the South Lebanon Army has charged.
The spokesman said Lahad has suggested the U.N. headquarters in the Lebanese border town of Naqura as the site for a meeting and has agreed to free the Finns if the militiamen confirm that they deserted to Amal. Otherwise, Lahad is demanding an exchange of the captive Finnish soldiers for his militiamen.
Timor Goksel, the UNIFIL spokesman, said U.N. officials are "probing the possibility" of arranging such a meeting and have been encouraged by Amal's willingness to allow U.N. observers to visit the 11 militiamen. But Goksel said that UNIFIL cannot force Amal to agree to the meeting, adding that Ali Jaber, a 25-year-old Shiite Moslem and leader of the 11 South Lebanon Army men, has twice rejected suggestions that he meet with his former commanders.
The 21 Finns, 19 of whom were abducted from a bus returning from a visit to Israel, were captured Friday, a few hours after the 11 militiamen turned up in the hands of Amal in the port city of Tyre.
Israeli officials said today that they "deplored" the taking of hostages and wanted the incident resolved "as soon as possible," but they continued to support Lahad's demands and to assert that they do not control either him or his militia.
"We don't give them orders, and they are not de facto under our control," Kimche was quoted as telling the diplomats in response to their request that Israel press the militia to release the Finns.
The Israeli Army today also continued to prevent reporters based in Israel from crossing the border to visit the U.N. headquarters at Naqura, although yesterday and today the Army organized trips for reporters to visit the 21 captive Finns in Marjayoun, the headquarters of the South Lebanon Army and site of an Israeli Army liaison office. The Finnish soldiers were quoted as saying they were being treated well.
The South Lebanon Army is trained, equipped and financed by Israel. It is designed to be Israel's main surrogate in a "security zone" six to 15 miles wide just north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The Jerusalem Post reported today that Israel is considering allowing UNIFIL to deploy its troops along the Israeli-Lebanese border in return for UNIFIL's recognition of the South Lebanon Army as a legitimate security force in the area.
According to the report, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told U.N. Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart at a meeting in Tel Aviv yesterday that such U.N. recognition was critical to the militia's ability to operate in the security zone.
Israeli officials argue that they are seeking parity for their militia in UNIFIL's treatment of various armed groups in Lebanon, particularly Amal, which is now the dominant force in southern Lebanon.
"They don't recognize or coordinate with the South Lebanon Army, but they do with Amal," the Defense Ministry official said. U.N. officials deny that they favor any Lebanese militia.