An Israeli-backed Lebanese militia kept 21 Finnish U.N. soldiers hostage for a sixth day Wednesday as U.N. officials tried to arrange a meeting between the commander of the militia and 11 of his men whose alleged defection triggered the abduction of the U.N. troops.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials sought to limit their diplomatic losses from the embarrassing affair while at the same time preserving their credibility as a reliable ally and salvaging politically sensitive security arrangements on their northern border.
The situation began unfolding last Friday when the Israeli-backed militia known as the South Lebanon Army abducted 24 Finnish soldiers assigned to the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon, a peacekeeping force that has served in the southern part of the country since 1978.
The action followed a mysterious confrontation earlier that day in which 11 men of the South Lebanon Army fell into the hands of Amal, a Shia Muslim militia.
U.N. officials maintain that the 11, all of whom are Shia Muslims, defected to Amal from the South Lebanon Army, which is made up largely of Christians and is financed and equipped by Israel. But the South Lebanon Army insists that the Finnish U.N. soldiers disarmed the 11 and turned them over to Amal against their will.
At the outset, the South Lebanon Army threatened to execute the Finns, one every hour until the 11 were returned, but then dropped the threat and released three of the 24 U.N. men.
On Wednesday, the South Lebanon Army commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, said he would be satisfied if he could meet the 11 on neutral ground. He suggested the U.N. force's headquarters at Naqoura, just north of the Israeli border.
Israeli officials quoted Lahad as saying in an earlier meeting with the U.N. deputy commander, Col. Jean Pons, that if the 11 men said under these conditions that they had deserted freely, the South Lebanon Army would release the Finns immediately.
The Israeli officials said they supported this approach, and U.N. spokesman Timur Goksel said in a telephone interview Wednesday that feelers had been extended to regional Amal leaders suggesting that such a meeting might be arranged. He said a response could be expected within a day or two.
'Not Our Hostage'
Goksel noted that the leader of the 11, identified as Ali Jaber, has rejected similar proposals in the past. "He says he doesn't want to risk his life," Goksel said. "You can't force the guy--he's not our hostage."
The U.N. force has guaranteed the safety of the 11 if they decide to go to Naqoura.
U.N. officials began an internal investigation into the affair on Monday, and Goksel said a preliminary report has been given to Brian Urquhart, the U.N. undersecretary general, who is traveling in the region. He said preliminary findings are not normally made public and that the final report may not be completed for several days.
The U.N. officials conducting the inquiry are not expected to meet with the 11 alleged defectors until today.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, David Kimche, director general of the Foreign Ministry, met with diplomats representing 10 governments in an effort "to prevent misunderstanding and to explain our behavior and our policy now in southern Lebanon," as a ministry spokesman put it.
'Common in Lebanon'
The spokesman quoted Kimche as telling the diplomats that Israel deplored the kidnaping of U.N. soldiers by the South Lebanon Army but that "this is a Lebanese militia and they are acting as Lebanese--including norms of behavior that are common in Lebanon."
Kimche told the ambassadors, several of whose governments contribute troops to the U.N. force, that Israel will "continue to apply every possible influence on the SLA" but that it does not control the militia and is not interested in being a party to negotiations for an exchange. The spokesman quoted Kimche as saying that Israel understands the South Lebanon Army's position regarding the original incident and is "very skeptical" of the U.N. account of Friday's events.
Israel also reopened its northern border to selected journalists Wednesday so they could travel under army escort to see the Finnish hostages, who are being held near South Lebanon Army headquarters at Marjayoun, Lebanon. U.N. officials who have visited the captives confirm that they are being treated well.
Israel has come under sharp international criticism in connection with the incident. Sweden and Norway delivered diplomatic protests on Tuesday, and newspapers representing Finland's major political parties have accused Israel of complicity in the abduction of the soldiers.
"In kidnaping the Finnish U.N. troops, Israel has attempted to underline the weakness of the world organization and force the U.N. troops to pull out of southern Lebanon," the newspaper of Finland's Social Democratic Party, Suomen Sosialidemokraati, charged Tuesday.
Israel has backed the South Lebanon Army nonetheless--for reasons of prestige as well as security.
Israel has twice entered into negotiations with Lebanon with regard to security arrangements to protect its northern settlements against attack from Lebanese territory. But one such agreement, in 1983, was quickly abrogated by the Lebanese under Syrian pressure; the second effort, last winter, collapsed.
Thus Israel, intent on maintaining military hegemony over southern Lebanon, dictated its own security terms as its army pulled out of Lebanon in stages through the first half of this year.
Central to those arrangements is the South Lebanon Army, which Israel has pledged to support fully within a security zone extending up to 10 miles north of the border. The militia's mission is to keep forces hostile to Israel from approaching the frontier.
Israel's alliance with the South Lebanon Army is controversial inside Israel as well as abroad. Shia Muslims make up the majority of the population in southern Lebanon, and Israel's support of the predominantly Christian militia is a constant source of friction. Israeli officials admit privately that the South Lebanon Army would be quickly overwhelmed by rival forces if it lost Israel's support.
Zev Schiff, military columnist for the independent newspaper Haaretz and author of a widely acclaimed book on Israel's war in Lebanon, commented, "I think it's a mistake to rely on the SLA." He added, "The future is with the Amal. Those are our neighbors, and we must find an arrangement with them."
However, Schiff conceded, Amal has shown no willingness to make a deal with Israel.
U.N. officials argue that U.N. troops should be deployed along the border. Gen. Alexander Erskine, commander of U.N. forces in the Middle East, said: "I personally don't think that in the present circumstances the so-called Christian enclave or the security belt is going to work. I think it's going to get (Israel) into more trouble."
However, Israel has constantly tried to have the U.N. force's mandate changed so that it is deployed farther from the border rather than closer to it. For one thing, it regards some of the U.N. force's national contingents--among them the French and the Irish--as unsympathetic. For another, it sees the presence of any U.N. troops as limiting Israeli freedom of action in a zone it considers crucial to its security.
Under those circumstances, Israeli leaders have so far regarded the South Lebanon Army as the best of what may be a bad list of options in southern Lebanon.
There is an element of prestige involved--Israel has already withdrawn officially from Lebanon after a three-year war there, with virtually nothing to show for it except a $3.5-billion bill and 654 war dead. If it were to give up the security zone and the South Lebanon Army, it would be left with less protection than it had before its 1982 invasion. At that time, a different Christian militia served as its proxy in the region.
However, according to Heller, the future of the South Lebanon Army also has "security implications for Israel's overall deterrent power."
"That's not to say," he said, "that you can try any sort of one-to-one relationship between what will happen with the SLA and how willing some Arab state may be to take on Israel, or to provoke it. But these things tend to have a cumulative and unpredictable effect."