German FM: It Is Premature for Talks on Release of 2 IDF Soldiers

Mahmoud Kamati says that Samir Kuntar, jailed for 1979 murders of four Israelis, must be freed in first stage of any swap.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Friday it was premature to talk of negotiations for the release of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in July, but said Germany would be prepared to help in mediation if asked.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv, Steinmeier said he had raised the issue of abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev with Lebanese officials.

The abduction of the soldiers in a cross-border raid sparked 34 days of bitter fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Three other soldiers were killed in the attack, and five more died in an initial rescue operation.

"In my talks with the government in Lebanon I discussed this issue of the abductees," he said, speaking in German translated into Hebrew. "I don't know if the time is ripe, here in Israel and in Lebanon to start the process, but if we are asked to help we would be interested in doing so."

He did not elaborate.

Germany's intelligence chief, Ernst Uhrlau, who helped mediate a 2004 prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, visited Lebanon last week but details of his trip were not made public.

Earlier Friday, a senior Hezbollah official said the group will not release the two soldiers unless Israel frees a Lebanese terrorist jailed for the 1979 murders of four people in Nahariya, a senior official of the group said Friday.

In an interview to the Nazareth-based newspaper A-Sinara published Friday, Mahmoud Kamati said that if a prisoner exchange was to be carried in stages, Israel had to ensure that Samir Kuntar was freed in the first stage, as his release had been one of the aims of the abduction of the two soldiers.

Kuntar led the group of terrorists who broke into a Nahariya apartment and took hostage Danny Haran, 28, and his four-year-old daughter, Einat. The two were later killed by the terrorists.

A policeman was also killed in the attack, and Haran's two-year-old daughter was accidentally smothered by her mother who held a hand across her mouth so that she would not give them away as they hid from the terrorists.

Kamati also said that the soldiers would not be released with negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah. He added that although United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had expressed support for indirect negotiations between the sides, Hezbollah had yet to receive a formal approach from the UN.

Regarding the broadcast of a film showing missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, aired by Lebanese and Israeli television, Kamati said that Hezbollah had no fresh information on the issue and that the footage did not indicate a breakthrough in news on the airman's fate.

The clip of Arad was shown as part of a Lebanese program about prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel, which also included footage of the abduction of three IDF soldiers in October 2000. Israel received the bodies of the three soldiers in a January 2004 prisoner swap. Hezbollah also returned kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum as part of the deal.

Kamati said that Hezbollah did not have a hand in the release of the footage, and that the decision to air the video had been made by producers alone. He stressed that while Hezbollah had supplied footage to the director, it had not played a role in the editing of the program.