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Israelis Try to Limit Diplomatic Losses Over U.N. Soldiers Held Hostage

June 13, 1985|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — 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.

Three Released

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.

Diplomatic Protests

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.

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