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(photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Tuesday that "serious negotiations" were under way over the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers whose capture on July 12 ignited the war in Lebanon.
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In a three-hour taped television interview, Nasrallah said a negotiator appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been meeting with Hizbullah and Israeli officials.
He would not provide details about the negotiations, but told Hizbullah's TV station, "We have reached a stage of exchanging ideas, proposals or conditions."
Nasrallah has offered to exchange the two for Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, but Israel has repeatedly refused. Although the U.N. resolution that ended the 34-day war called for the soldiers' unconditional release, Israel has exchanged prisoners in the past.
"They are serious negotiations ... It's better to keep it away from the media ... this issue is on track. We are moving ahead. How long does it take? It's up to the nature of the negotiations," Nasrallah said in his first appearance since speaking at a "victory" rally in south Beirut in September.
The black-turbaned cleric also said his militant group has reinforced its arsenal of rockets - numbering some 33,000 - and warned that any attempts by an international force to disarm it would transform Lebanon into another Iraq or Afghanistan.
Despite attempts to keep arms from being smuggled to the guerrilla group and increased international pressure for it to lay down its weapons, Hizbullah has "regained all its vigor," he said.
"The resistance in Lebanon is strong, cohesive, able and ready, and they will not be able to undermine it no matter what the challenges are," he said.
The interview was broadcast hours after Israeli warplanes staged mock raids over south Beirut and two southern Lebanese towns in the strongest show of force since the Israel-Hezbollah war ended with a cease-fire on Aug. 14.
The United Nations and the Lebanese government have condemned Israel for its repeated flights over its northern neighbor, saying such actions violate the cease-fire. But Israel has said it would continue the overflights because Lebanon has failed to prevent arms from being smuggled to Hezbollah.
The U.N.-brokered cease-fire also calls for the militant group to be disarmed, but Hezbollah has refused to give up its weapons. Neither the beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force, which currently numbers about 7,300, nor some 15,000 Lebanese troops patrolling a buffer zone in south Lebanon have the mandate or political will to take Hezbollah's weapons by force.
Nasrallah said his group has been arming itself since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, and now possesses more than 33,000 rockets, up from the more than 20,000 he said Hezbollah had on Sept. 22.
"We have been preparing ourselves in the past six years, and never stopped prepping ourselves. We now possess everything that we had before" the war, he said.
Nasrallah also expressed concern that deteriorating security could force Lebanon's Western-backed government to ask U.N. peacekeepers to take stronger actions than their current mandate dictates.
"This is dangerous and will lead to transforming Lebanon into another Afghanistan and another Iraq," he said.
Since the war ended, Beirut has witnessed a string of minor attacks, including a grenade fired at a downtown building that houses a dance club. The explosion, which was near U.N. offices, injured six people, broke windows and damaged cars.
Many people believe the attacks had political or sectarian overtones, but no suspects have been publicly named.
Nasrallah also said he welcomed a call by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, to hold talks next week on forming a national unity government. But he warned that if talks fail, Hezbollah would be forced "to go to the streets."
"They will go to the streets, God willing ... not only to demand a national unity government, but to call for early parliamentary elections. This is our natural right," he said.
Hezbollah officials and Lebanese Christian opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun have been calling for the formation of a new national unity government to replace Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's regime.
The Western-backed Saniora has repeatedly rejected the idea of a new government, contending that his Cabinet achieved much for the country and did its best to stop the war.
During the interview, the Hezbollah leader also accused the United States of being responsible for continued violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and predicted that the U.S. would be forced to leave the region in the future - just like it left Vietnam after the war there three decades ago.
"They will leave the Mideast, Arab and Islamic worlds just as they left Vietnam, and I advise those who are counting on them to draw conclusion from the Vietnam experience."
This would happen "within years, not months," he added.