Israeli-Backed Lebanon Militia Will Free All 21 Captive U.N. Soldiers, Officials Say
Twenty-one U.N. soldiers from Finland held for a week by an Israeli-backed Lebanese militia will be released in southern Lebanon this morning, Israeli army and U.N. officials said Friday.
The announcement came shortly after a visibly perturbed U.N. Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart told reporters in Jerusalem that the world body would have to consider other alternatives, including a military rescue operation, if a last-ditch diplomatic effort failed to bring about the release of the Finnish peacekeeping troops.
Later, when advised that the release had been arranged, he said: “That’s delightful news. “We don’t shoot people like everybody else, so it takes us longer to sort out these matters.”
The breakthrough came when Gen. Antoine Lahad, commander of the Israeli-backed militia known as the South Lebanon Army, accepted statements signed by 11 of his men confirming that they have defected from the militia and do not want to rejoin.
The 11 landed in the hands of a rival Lebanese militia, Amal, last Friday under circumstances that are still not clear. Officials of the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon said the men had defected, but Lahad accused the Finnish troops, who are attached to the U.N. unit, of complicity in disarming the 11 and handing them over to Amal.
Troops of the South Lebanon Army then seized 25 Finns and threatened to execute one every hour until the 11 militiamen were returned. The death threat was dropped and four of the Finns were released, but the remaining 21 were held hostage while Lahad demanded a face-to-face meeting with the defectors on neutral ground so that he could be assured of their wishes.
Refused to Meet Lahad
The 11 refused to meet Lahad, but on Thursday they talked with a representative of the International Red Cross at Maarakeh, a village in southern Lebanon. The interviews were arranged by the United Nations.
On Friday, the Red Cross representative met with Lahad at the militia commander’s headquarters in Marjayoun. According to U.N. and Israeli defense sources, the Red Cross representative handed over written statements from each defector saying he did not wish to return to the South Lebanon Army.
Lahad, according to an Israeli source, “figured he better get out of the whole affair” and accepted the written assurances.
Loss of Face
The weeklong incident appeared to involve an embarrassing loss of face for Lahad’s Israeli backers as well as for his South Lebanon Army. Israel has pledged to back the predominantly Christian militia in defending a security zone in southern Lebanon, even though most of the residents of the zone are Shia Muslims who oppose the South Lebanon Army.
Israel supplies money, training and equipment for the South Lebanon Army and has a number of liaison personnel assigned to permanent duty with it. Still, Israel asserted throughout the weeklong hostage incident that it could not force Lahad to release his captives.
Urquhart completed two days of meetings with top Israeli officials Friday, trying to persuade them to give up their support of the South Lebanon Army and to agree instead to redeployment of UNIFIL troops southward to the international border.
But Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir both said Friday that they oppose such a move.
Shamir Downgrades UNIFIL
Shamir charged that the U.N. force has been ineffective in preventing terrorist attacks against Israel from southern Lebanon and that he prefers the South Lebanon Army. Rabin said that deployment of UNIFIL along the border would effectively seal it, cutting off Israel from its South Lebanon Army ally and limiting the Israeli army’s freedom of action in an area that Israel considers important to its security.
Israeli military sources said they hope that one positive result of the admittedly embarrassing hostage incident might be “the beginning of coordination between UNIFIL and SLA.” In Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army is considered a proxy force of the Israelis, and the United Nations does not recognize it.
Urquhart told reporters Friday there will be no change in that position, and added, “It’s perfectly clear that there is no way any U.N. operation anywhere in the world can recognize a military organization that is seen as illegal by the country in whose sovereign territory it is.”
U.N. Official Annoyed
It was still not clear at the time of Urquhart’s news conference whether the 21 Finns would be released, and he was visibly annoyed at the slow pace of negotiations for their release.
“There is no possible justification for holding U.N. peacekeeping soldiers hostage,” he said. “There are limits to how far even the patience of U.N. peacekeeping personnel and the people who direct them can be put, and if it turns out to be true that no one controls Gen. Lahad, then we shall have to assimilate the consequences of that conclusion and decide what we do next.”
Asked specifically if he considered a military operation a possible option, he replied: “It’s an option that personally I would very much dislike to have to consider. . . . If it turns out that there is no other control over the people concerned, I suppose very regretfully that we would have to consider that.”