Monday, August 28, 2006

TEL AVIV — Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday that he would not have ordered the July 12 seizure of two Israeli soldiers had he known it would provoke a war that leveled Shi’ite villages and neighborhoods throughout Lebanon.

“We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not,” he told Lebanon’s New TV station.

The sheik also said that officials from the United Nations and Italy were attempting to negotiate an exchange of the Israeli soldiers for Arabs held in Israeli jails. Israel denied involvement in any prisoner-exchange talks.

In addition, Sheik Nasrallah said Hezbollah would not oppose the deployment of thousands of U.N. peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon.

His comments confirm weeks of speculation in Israel that Hezbollah was surprised by Israel’s military response to the July 12 capture.

Since the Aug. 14 cease-fire, Sheik Nasrallah has declared a victory in the war, and he has become a hero throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

But yesterday’s admission of a serious miscalculation reflects a need to shore up domestic support for Hezbollah and deflect criticism for starting the war, Israeli analysts said.

“It means that [Sheik Nasrallah] needs to settle the score in the Lebanese domestic arena,” said Oded Granot, the Middle East affairs commentator on Israel’s public-run Channel 1 news station. “[He] needs to provide welfare for the residents of the south, and he needs to rehabilitate his standing.”

In recent days, European countries have pledged to send 7,000 troops as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force of up to 15,000.

The troops are to join a largely ineffective U.N. observer mission that has been in place for nearly three decades.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting earlier this month, calls for talks on the release of the two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed in the kidnapping, and five were killed in the ensuing rescue attempt.

Although Israel considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, the nation has reached prisoner-exchange deals with the militants through third-party mediators.

In 2004, Israel released hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in return for a reserve officer kidnapped by Hezbollah and the bodies of three soldiers killed in a raid on an Israeli border outpost.

A report in an Egyptian government-run newspaper said German mediators also had started work on a prisoner-swap deal.

But Israeli government sources told the Ha’aretz newspaper that there were no talks yet on a prisoner swap.

The kidnapped Israeli soldiers’ families also voiced skepticism that negotiations were under way.

Sheik Nasrallah said Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri would lead negotiations on Lebanon’s side.

The subject is expected to be discussed during a visit to Beirut today by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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