Israel 'ready to talk' on prisoners

By Ben Russell

JERUSALEM - Israel is prepared to discuss freeing Lebanese prisoners for two soldiers held hostage by Hizbollah if the two are handed over to the Lebanese Government, a senior Israeli political source said yesterday.

Any negotiations, which would likely take place through a mediator, would be conducted with the Lebanese Government and not the Hizbollah guerrilla group, the source said.

The source said Israel's position was conveyed to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday. Israel has previously said the two had to be freed unconditionally as part of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended fighting with Hizbollah.

Israel launched its war on Hizbollah after the group captured the two soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. A shaky ceasefire took effect on August 14.

The source said Israel wanted to ensure any prisoner swap would be seen as a gesture to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and not taken as a victory by Hizbollah.

Hizbollah wants Israel to release thousands of Arab prisoners in its jails, including Lebanese, in return for the two soldiers.

Israel and Lebanon do not have diplomatic relations, which means any negotiations would have to go through a third party.

Meanwhile, pressure for an international ban on cluster bombs intensified yesterday as Israel was accused of littering southern Lebanon with thousands of unexploded bombs in the final hours of its war against Hizbollah.

Campaigners accused the Israeli Defence Force of leaving a "minefield" of deadly bomblets in villages and fields after firing hundreds of cluster shells, rockets and bombs across its northern border in the three days before hostilities ended last month.

UN officials said 12 people had been killed and another 49 injured by unexploded bombs since the war ended and the casualty rate was likely to rise.

Israel insists that it did not target civilians during the conflict and says all weaponry used was in accordance with international law.

But anti-landmine campaigners have been pressing for an international ban on their use, arguing that cluster bombs are indiscriminate and their use in populated areas may contravene international law.

Chris Clarke, head of the UN mine action service in Southern Lebanon, said: "This is without a doubt the worst post-conflict cluster bomb contamination I have ever seen."

- REUTERS

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