- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — U.N. chief Kofi Annan said yesterday he would appoint a mediator for indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah on the release of two abducted Israeli soldiers, the first public word of negotiations between the bitter enemies since fighting in Lebanon ended.

The announcement raised the possibility of a prisoner swap to win the soldiers’ release, an exchange that Israel has repeatedly rejected, at least in public.

Until now, Israel had insisted that it would not hold any contacts with Hezbollah, but its government has been under increasing domestic pressure to bring the two home.

“Both sides have accepted the good offices of the secretary-general to help resolve this problem,” Mr. Annan told a press conference in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea port of Jidda. “I will designate someone to work discreetly and quietly with them to find a solution.”

“The only thing that I insisted on is that if I’m going to use my good offices, then my mediator should be the only mediator,” he said. “There must be one mediator and effective channel of communication.” Mr. Annan said he would not announce the mediator’s name to allow him to work quietly.

The agreement on the mediation effort could mark a breakthrough on an issue that is crucial to preserving the fragile three-week-old cease-fire that ended 34 days of Israel-Hezbollah fighting. Israel mounted its offensive in Lebanon after the Shi’ite guerrillas seized the two soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid July 12.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the fighting on Aug. 14 urges the unconditional release of the two soldiers. Hezbollah has said it would free them only in a swap for Arab prisoners held by Israel.

Mr. Annan did not say whether a prisoner swap was on the agenda for the mediation effort, and Israel yesterday repeated its stance demanding an unconditional release of the soldiers.

Asked about the mediation effort, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that during Mr. Annan’s visit to Israel last week, “we urged him to bring about the full implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages.”

There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah officials.

Hezbollah has not said how many Arab prisoners it is seeking in any swap. Israel was holding four Lebanese before the conflict began and reported capturing several dozen Hezbollah members during the fighting. Israel and the guerrillas have had prisoner swaps in the past, the latest in 2004.

Separately, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, met with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon yesterday and asked them to show proof that the two Israeli soldiers are still alive, saying such a move could give a boost to negotiations. Mr. Jackson, who has been in the region for the past 10 days, said the continued detention of the soldiers is “becoming a magnet to attract a second round” of war.

Mr. Annan announced the mediation effort after talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Jidda, the latest stop in the U.N. chief’s 11-day tour of the Middle East aimed at getting all sides to implement and support the U.N. cease-fire resolution.

The resolution also calls for a 15,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force to deploy in southern Lebanon to keep Hezbollah weapons away from the border with Israel.

Qatar yesterday became the first Arab nation to announce it will contribute to the force, pledging 200 to 300 soldiers. Pakistan’s prime minister toured devastated south Beirut and considered a similar offer.

An Israeli spokesman said his country had no objections to Qatari troops. Qatar — like most other Arab states — does not recognize Israel, but the two countries have low-level trade ties.

The United States, Europe and Israel have been eager to have Muslim forces among the peacekeepers, but Muslim states fear they could be perceived as opposing Hezbollah, which gained considerable clout in the region for its fierce resistance to the Israeli army.

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