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Israel's role in south Lebanon is clouded. Hostage situation overshadows UN attempts to get Israel to give up security zone

A United Nations envoy's plan to persuade Israel to abandon its security zone in south Lebanon has been overshadowed by events. When UN Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart arrived here Tuesday, a standoff continued over the holding of 21 Finnish UN peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA).

The Finnish incident has clouded what UN officials in the region say is the larger question of the viability both of Israel's security zone and of the SLA as policemen in that zone.

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Mr. Urquhart's plan called for Israel to allow a combination of UN forces and the Shiite Muslim militia, Amal, to patrol from the UN zone south to the border.

The plan had been gaining some ground in Israeli defense circles in recent weeks as Amal fought Palestinian guerrillas in Beirut and vowed to keep the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the south.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday that Urquhart's suggestions would be brought before the Cabinet and that a Cabinet decision would be required for Israel to abandon the security zone.

The hostage situation began last week, when the SLA took the Finnish troops after 11 SLA militiamen disappeared from their post. SLA commander Antoine Lahad alleges that members of the Finnish Battalion of the UN force, known as UNIFIL, had disarmed his militiamen and then turned them over to the Amal militia. A UNIFIL spokesman says the 11 SLA men, all Shiite Muslims, had deserted the SLA and voluntarily joined Amal.

The deadlock over the kidnappings has dragged on for five days. Mr. Lahad says he will only release the Finns after he is allowed to meet with the 11 SLA men in a neutral place and determines whether they have deserted or are being held hostage.

UNIFIL insists the Finns should immediately be released, and an investigation will then be conducted.

As the standoff dragged on, the UN launched its own investigation of the incident. UNIFIL officer Jean Pons met Tuesday with Lahad and visited the Finns, who are said to be in good condition. Meetings continued Wednesday between UNIFIL and the SLA.

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Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General David Kimche met Wednesday with the envoys of eight of the 10 nations that contribute to the 5,600-man UNIFIL force.

Mr. Kimche explained to the generally skeptical envoys that although Israel trains, arms, and pays the SLA, it cannot order the militia to release the Finns. Israel can only advise that it do so, he said.

Although Israel said its units had all pulled out by Monday, it continues to patrol the area. Wednesday, it was reported that two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the security zone when their unit killed four guerrillas 11 miles north of the border.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said Israel will continue to patrol the border zone until satisfied that the south will remain calm.

Israel will then continue to support SLA's efforts to keep guerrillas out of the area.

UN officials in the region claim this is a recipe for disaster.

The mostly Christian SLA is despised by Amal, the most powerful militia in the south. Amal has vowed to attack the SLA until it disintegrates, and has said it will continue to attack Israeli soldiers until the last one returns to Israel.

Instead of relying on the SLA, a force from which soldiers have been steadily deserting since Israel announced its intention to leave Lebanon, Israel would be better off leaving the south to Amal, UN officials argue.

Israeli officials said Wednesday that Urquhart was only able to sketch his plan briefly in a meeting with Rabin the day before. Most of the meeting was devoted to the hostage crisis, the officials said.

Urquhart left Wednesday afternoon for Beirut, where he is scheduled to meet with Amal leader Nabih Berri. He also is expected to travel to Syria before returning to Israel on Friday.

UN diplomat Jean-Claude Aim'e has been in the region for weeks, trying to negotiate an understanding between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria that would truly end Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.

According to United Nations sources, the Syrians insist that UNIFIL troops not deploy to the Israeli-Lebanese border unless the SLA is disbanded and Israel closes the ``Good Fence'' at the Israeli border town of Metullah.

The Good Fence has allowed traffic to cross between Israel and Lebanon for years, although the two countries never had formal relations.

Israel's position is that it wants to secure some sort of role for the SLA -- that it cannot abandon a militia it has been supplying and backing for eight years.

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