Lebanon Militia Frees 3 Finnish U.N. Soldiers
The South Lebanon Army on Saturday freed three of the 23 Finnish U.N. peacekeeping soldiers whom it held captive and retracted its threat to kill its hostages, but it continued its refusal to release most of them until 11 of its own men are freed by a rival militia.
Speaking to reporters at the Israeli town of Metulla on the border with Lebanon, Gen. Antoine Lahad, commander of the Israeli-backed army, said that “I can guarantee the safety of those (Finns) being held” by his men just north of the frontier.
Lahad, a former Lebanese army general installed by the Israelis as head of the South Lebanon Army, a largely Christian militia outfit, freed the three soldiers a few hours after telling reporters that he might release some of the 23 hostages “as a good-will gesture.”
An Unconfirmed Report
U.N. spokesman Timor Goksel said early today that three Finnish privates were released. He said they were turned over to the Norwegian battalion attached to the 10-nation U.N. peacekeeping force at the southern Lebanese village of Ibl as Saqi just before midnight.
The Finnish troops, part of a 5,000-man U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, were taken prisoner Friday in retaliation for the defection or capture of 11 SLA members at a U.N. checkpoint inside the so-called security zone established by Israel to protect its northern border from attack after the pullout of its troops from Lebanon.
Although the circumstances remain confused and contradictory, the 11 SLA men ended up in the hands of Amal, the Shia Muslim militia that is battling the South Lebanon Army for control of the region.
When Israel pulled the bulk of its forces out of Lebanon, bringing its three-year invasion of that country to an end, it left Lahad’s militia in charge of the region. Amal asserts that this state of affairs is nothing more than continued Israeli occupation.
Adding to the tension is the fact that the U.N. peacekeeping force maintains that it has jurisdiction over some of the security zone, especially in the sector where the current confrontation is taking place.
Although Lahad at first denied that his troops threatened to kill one Finnish hostage “every hour” until Amal freed the 11 SLA men, an aide acknowledged later Saturday that such a threat had indeed been made.
However, as evidence that there is “nothing in my heart against UNIFIL (the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon),” Lahad said that “I will probably free three or four of the Finnish troops this evening.”
Before the release of the three privates, Goksel said negotiations, which began Friday among Amal, Israel, the SLA and the United Nations, were still going on, but he expressed doubt that there would be any major change until today, at the earliest.
Israeli military sources in Tel Aviv seconded that view, saying that “no official request has been received” asking Israel to put pressure on the South Lebanon Army to free the Finns.
“Everyone is waiting for something (to happen) beyond the military,” the source said, “and I expect it will come when the United Nations officially asks the Foreign Ministry to help.”
Goksel also indicated that the ultimate decision probably would be made at the U.N. headquarters in New York after talks with leaders of the parties and countries involved.
Lahad said that while the Israeli commander in the area, Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, had requested that the Finnish troops be well cared for, there had been no pressure on him from the Jerusalem government to release the captives.
Complicated as the situation was from the outset, it grew even more tangled Saturday afternoon when Amal leader Nabih Berri said from his headquarters in Beirut that the 11 SLA men would not be freed unless Israel meets new conditions.
Berri said Israel must release Lebanese Shia Muslims in Israeli prisons or force the South Lebanon Army to withdraw from the city of Jezzine before Amal will free the 11.
Israeli military sources expressed bewilderment at the first condition, one of them saying, “This is getting crazy” and pointing out that Israel released about 300 Lebanese prisoners, among a total of more than 1,000 guerrilla prisoners, last month in return for the release of three Israeli soldiers held by Palestinian guerrillas.
The sources also said it is unlikely that Lahad would ever agree to give up Jezzine, a Christian town in south-central Lebanon where several thousand Christian refugees have been sheltered since Amal drove them from their homes on the coast in earlier fighting.
Although Jezzine lies outside of the security zone that Israel left under SLA control, Lahad’s forces have continued to occupy the city.
The situation grew even murkier when Amal offered to let SLA officers interview the captives to assure themselves that the 11 men were safe.
According to various sources, the ranking officers among the 11 refused to be interviewed, adding credence to statements of the U.N. troops manning the checkpoint that the 11 defected to Amal and were not “captured” either by Amal or the U.N. troops, as Lahad asserts.