South Lebanon Army Frees 21 Finns : Troops in ‘Good Condition, Only Bored,’ U.N. Officer Says
The Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia released 21 U.N. peacekeeping soldiers from Finland on Saturday after holding them hostage for eight days and at one point threatening to kill them.
“They are in good condition--only bored,” said Kari Kortilla, chief of staff of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
The release ended a standoff involving the largely Christian militia and the rival Shia Muslim militia Amal and the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
The South Lebanon Army, a largely Christian force armed and financed by Israel, seized the Finns June 7 after accusing the U.N. troops of disarming 11 of its militia members and handing them over to Amal.
The Red Cross later determined in interviews with the 11 militiamen that they had defected from the South Lebanon Army and had no desire to return to the militia.
Upon hearing those findings, Gen. Antoine Lahad, the milita’s commander, agreed Friday to release the 21 Finns from the villa in which they had been kept in Marjayoun, just north of the Israeli border.
Lahad and Jean Pons, deputy commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force, in berets and crisp uniforms under a blazing sun, stood at the bottom of steps of the villa. The leaders shook hands with each of the released captives and murmured “good luck” to them as they left.
The 21 boarded a U.N. bus and were taken in a heavily guarded convoy to the Norwegian battalion headquarters at a nearby village. From there, they were flown by helicopter to their battalions.
Both the militia and U.N. peacekeepers expressed hope such incidents would not happen again.
“We are putting an end to this regrettable incident,” said a spokesman for Lahad.
Chief of Staff Kortilla, also a Finn, said the U.N. force had been in communication with the hostages the last two days. He said he had “no complaints” about the way they had been treated.
Kortilla told a reporter the released captives were “in very good condition.”
“We were treated well. We had no complaint besides boredom,” one of the freed soldiers said.
Lahad finally released the Finns after a report from U.N. and International Red Cross representatives said his men were remaining voluntarily with Amal.
When the Finns were seized, U.N. spokesman Timur Goksel reported a threat from the militiamen to “shoot the U.N. soldiers one every hour.”
Lahad, at a news conference last week, dismissed the death threats.
He denied during the week that Israel was in any way involved in the capture of the Finns, and Israeli leaders repeatedly dismissed pleas for their intervention, saying that they could not force the militia to free the Finns. However, sources close to the negotiations said Israel had urged Lahad to release them.
In New York, Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said he was “greatly relieved that the unwarranted detentions” of the Finnish soldiers had ended.
The U.N. force has patrolled south Lebanon since a 1978 under a Security Council mandate.