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Hezbollah war a mistake?

Leader may regret the kidnapping of soldiers

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A Lebanese worker repairs a balcony while bulldozers remove rubble from destroyed buildings in Beirut on Sunday.

A Lebanese worker repairs a balcony while bulldozers remove rubble from destroyed buildings in Beirut on Sunday.

Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a TV interview aired Sunday that he would not have ordered the capture of two Israeli soldiers if he had known it would lead to such a war.

Guerrillas from the Islamic militant group killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two more in a cross-border raid July 12, which sparked 34 days of fighting that ended with a cease-fire on Aug. 14.

"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 said in an interview with Lebanon's New TV station.

He also said Italy and the United Nations had made contacts to help mediate a prisoner swap with Israel but did not specify whether they had contacted Hezbollah directly. He did not say in what capacity Italy had expressed interest — on its own or on Israel's behalf.

Nasrallah said Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was in charge of the negotiations and the subject would be discussed during U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's visit to Beirut today.

There had been "some contacts" to arrange a meeting between him and Annan, he said, but that was unlikely for security reasons.

"The Italians seem to be getting close and are trying to get into the subject. The United Nations is interested," Nasrallah said. "The Israelis have acknowledged that this (issue) is headed for negotiations and a (prisoners) exchange."

A senior Israeli government official declined to comment on such contacts, saying only that Israel "does not negotiate with terrorists" and continues to demand the unconditional release of the two soldiers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said no negotiations were being held on a prisoner release.

"Right now no, but I expect that concerning the prisoners in the north, we shall have to wait until the Lebanese government will take charge completely over its land in accordance with the U.N. resolution," he said.

Israeli military officials said earlier this month that Israel is holding 13 Hezbollah prisoners and the bodies of dozens of guerrillas that it could swap for the two captive soldiers, but would not include any Palestinian prisoners in such a deal.

Also Sunday, 245 French soldiers arrived at Beirut's airport to help the Lebanese army rebuild bridges destroyed or damaged by Israeli air strikes.

The troops were separate from a French contribution of 2,000 soldiers to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, which was being expanded to 15,000 members under the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the Israel-Hezbollah war.

"Our job is to work jointly with the Lebanese army in rebuilding bridges. The French troops will be here for about one and a half months at least," said Lt. Philip Toroller, an officer of the French military mission based at the French Embassy in Beirut. He said the troops would go first to Damour, a coastal town south of Beirut, where they would begin work before moving to other areas in south Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had received assurances from Annan that new peacekeepers would be on the ground in Lebanon within a week, the prime minister's office said in a statement.

The UNIFIL force is paid for out of the budget of the United Nations, which is made up of member states' annual contributions, and the new expansion of the force will come out of the same budget, said Timur Goksel, a former head of UNIFIL.

American civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson said he raised the issue of a prisoner swap in talks with President Bashar Assad during a visit, but he did not elaborate on the Syrian leader's response.

Jackson was in Damascus on the first leg of a tour that also included stops in Lebanon and Israel. He said he was there to gauge the "views" of Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli officials, and to appeal to them to stick to the U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

Nasrallah, whose whereabouts are unknown as he went into hiding on the first day of the war, also said he did not believe a second bout of fighting would break out with Israel, even though he said more than half his group's rocket arsenal was still left.

"The current Israeli situation, and the available information tells us that we are not heading to another round," he said.

However, he called any possible attacks on Israeli troops "legitimate" as long as even one Israeli soldier remained in Lebanon.

Lebanese officials have said continuing Israeli overflights violate the 2-week-old cease-fire, and Annan proclaimed an Israeli commando raid one week into the truce a violation. Hezbollah has not retaliated, but Nasrallah said the group would "choose the time and place" to strike back.

"If we have been patient until now, it does not mean we will be patient forever, but we are not obliged to reveal the limits of our patience," he said.

Meanwhile, Malaysia urged the United Nations to let its soldiers join the peacekeeping force despite Israel's opposition to troops from predominantly Muslim nations without diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.

Malaysian troops "will not take sides and will do the job according to the U.N. mandate," Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said, according to the state Bernama news agency.

"Our record (in peacekeeping missions) is good," he said. "But, if the U.N. wants to heed to the wishes of Israel, what can we do?"