U.N. chief Kofi Annan said Monday he would appoint a mediator for indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah on the release of two abducted Israeli soldiers, the first public word of negotiations between the bitter enemies since fighting in Lebanon ended.
The announcement raised the possibility of a prisoner swap to win the soldiers' release, an exchange which Israel has repeatedly rejected, at least in public. Until now, Israel had insisted that it would not hold any contacts with Hezbollah, but its government has been under increasing domestic pressure to bring the two home.
The agreement on the mediation effort could mark a breakthrough on an issue that is crucial to preserving the fragile 3-week-old cease-fire that ended 34 days of Israel-Hezbollah fighting. Israel mounted its offensive in Lebanon after the Shiite guerrillas seized the two soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid July 12.
The U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the fighting on Aug. 14 urges the unconditional release of the two soldiers. Hezbollah has said it would free them only in a swap for Arab prisoners held by Israel.
"Both sides have accepted the good offices of the secretary-general to help resolve this problem," Annan told a news conference in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea port of Jiddah. "I will designate someone to work discreetly and quietly with them to find a solution."
"The only thing that I insisted on is that if I'm going to use my good offices, then my mediator should be the only mediator," he said. "There must be one mediator and effective channel of communication." Annan said he would not announce the mediator's name to allow him to work quietly.
Annan did not say whether a prisoner swap was on the agenda for the mediation effort, and Israel on Monday repeated its stance demanding an unconditional release of the soldiers.
Asked about the mediation effort, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that during Annan's visit to Israel last week, "we urged him to bring about the full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages. "
There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah officials.
Hezbollah has not said how many Arab prisoners it is seeking in any swap. Israel was holding four Lebanese before the conflict began and reported capturing several dozen Hezbollah members during the fighting. Israel and the guerrillas have had prisoner swaps in the past, the latest in 2004.
American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson met with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon on Monday and asked them to show proof that the two Israeli soldiers are still alive, saying such a move could give a boost to negotiations. Jackson, who has been in the region for the past 10 days, said the continued detention of the soldiers is "becoming a magnet to attract a second round" of war.
Annan announced the mediation effort after talks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Jiddah, the latest stop in the U.N. chief's 11-day tour of the Middle East aimed at getting all sides to implement and support the U.N. cease-fire resolution.
The resolution also calls for a 15,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force to deploy in southern Lebanon to keep Hezbollah weapons away from the border with Israel.
Qatar on Monday became the first Arab nation to announce it will contribute to the force, pledging 200 to 300 soldiers. Pakistan's prime minister toured devastated south Beirut and considered a similar offer.
An Israeli spokesman said his country had no objections to Qatari troops. Qatar — like most other Arab states — does not recognize Israel, but the two countries have low-level trade ties.
The U.S., Europe and Israel have been eager to have Muslim forces among the peacekeepers, but Muslim states fear they could be perceived as opposing Hezbollah, which gained considerable clout in the region for its fierce resistance to the Israeli army.
Qatar's troop offer came on the same day that the country's national air carrier, Qatar Airways, landed a commercial flight at Beirut airport, carrying 142 passengers, despite Israel's blockade of Lebanon — the first of what the carrier said would be daily commercial flights.
An Israeli army spokesman said the flight was coordinated with Israel and was the fourth Qatari flight to land with Israeli permission in Beirut since Friday — an apparent reference to aid flights since this was the first known regularly scheduled commercial flight from Qatar.
But officials from the carrier and the Lebanese authorities insisted that the plane had flown without Israeli clearance.
On Saturday, Lebanon's parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, called on Arab nations to send flights to break the blockade, which Lebanon has said is hampering its reconstruction efforts. Israel has refused international pressure to lift the blockade until it is guaranteed that weapons shipments to Hezbollah are halted.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani said his country's troop contribution to the international force was an attempt by the tiny Persian Gulf nation "to tell the world of the Arab presence, even modestly, in this force and to tell Israel that we believe in this decision and so we want to contribute in implementing it."
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz — leader of another key Muslim country — was considering a similar pledge as he toured the Dahiyah district of south Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold that was pounded to rubble by Israeli missiles during the war.
"If it helps the settlement of peace, Pakistan may consider contributing troops to Lebanon, but such a decision has not been made yet," the Anatolia news agency in Turkey quoted Aziz as saying.
Under the cease-fire plan, 15,000 Lebanese soldiers have begun deploying to assert control over the Hezbollah stronghold south of the Litani River. They have been moving into areas that Israeli troops have left.
French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who commands the U.N. force, met with senior Israeli and Lebanese officers at a border crossing Monday to coordinate Israel's pullout.
"I think we are on the right track in securing the full withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon and finally ensuring that the Lebanese army will take control of the whole border area in the south," Pellegrini said in a statement.
Israeli security officials say they expect their army to be out of Lebanese territory within the next two weeks. By that time, they expect sufficient U.N. forces will have arrived in south Lebanon to enforce the truce.
More than 870 Italian soldiers reached Lebanon by Monday, with the remainder of a 1,000-strong Italian contingent arriving in the next few days. They bring the total number of U.N. forces in Lebanon to 3,250 — more than one-fifth of the target.