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Israel Demands U.N. Video in Flap over Kidnapped Soldiers

Hoping to glean information regarding Hezbollah’s abduction of three Israeli soldiers last October, Israel is insisting it receive a full, uncensored copy of a video shot by a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon a day after three were kidnapped.

Since U.N. officials admitted the existence of the video last Friday — after months of maintaining there was no such footage — friction has been brewing between Israel and the international body over the conditions the officials are setting for Israel’s viewing of the tape.

A U.N. official said this weekend both Israel and Lebanon could view the video, but only after it was altered to obscure the faces of presumed Hezbollah members. Explaining the move, the official said the international body cannot play a role in transferring intelligence information to either of the parties.

The official also rejected Israeli allegations of a cover-up, saying U.N. officials previously denied the existence of any video because they were unaware of its existence.

Israeli security officials charged Sunday that the United Nations is concerned that Hezbollah may attack the international body’s peacekeeping forces should it provide Israel with an unedited version of the tape.

The families of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, who for months have been trying to obtain any scrap of information about the fate of their sons, expressed anger with the United Nations for its delay in acknowledging the video.

Haim Avraham, father of kidnapped soldier Benny Avraham, said that in a meeting last week with the U.N. special envoy to the region, Terje Roed-Larsen, he accused the international body of withholding information about the captives for months.

“I told him that if I do not receive the video in its entirety, I will lodge a complaint against him and the U.N. secretary-general at The Hague international court, as accomplices to the abduction,” Avraham was quoted as saying.

Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer have demanded that Israel receive an unaltered copy of the video.

Israel wants to determine whether there is any information or footage that would shed light on the abduction. Israeli officials also want to interview U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted some Israeli security sources as saying that the video does not portray anything new beyond what was already broadcast over an Arabic-language television station two days after the kidnapping.

Similarly, Jean Marie Guehenno, the U.N. undersecretary for peacekeeping, said the video — shot Oct. 8 by a member of the Indian contingent of the peacekeepers, would not shed new light on the kidnapping of Staff Sgt. Benny Avraham, Staff Sgt. Omar Souad and Sgt. Adi Avitan.

Hezbollah abducted the trio Oct. 7 when Israeli soldiers were conducting a routine check of the northern border with Lebanon. Shortly after, Hezbollah kidnapped an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who also serves as a colonel in the reserves.

For months, contacts have been held via third party intermediaries regarding an exchange of the Israeli abductees for Arab prisoners held by Israel.

Portions of the video have already been broadcast on Israel’s Channel Two Television. They show U.N. officials trying to tow two cars that were apparently used by the kidnappers and later abandoned.

A U.N. spokesman who viewed the video said inside the cars were bloodstains, explosive materials and equipment belonging to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, as the peacekeepers are known.

According to reports, the cars had forged UNIFIL license plates.

In a related development, Israeli security officials and families of the three soldiers are questioning the authenticity of images broadcast over the weekend that purportedly show two of the captives in a Beirut hospital 11 days after their abduction.

The faces of the two purported abductees are partly obscured, making identification difficult.

Israeli media quoted defense sources as saying it is unlikely such images could have been taken without Hezbollah’s consent — which in turn raises the question of why the fundamentalist Shi’ite group would want to release the images.

One theory is the pictures are part of Hezbollah’s campaign of psychological warfare, aimed at putting pressure on Israel to make more concessions in any potential prisoner exchange.

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