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Hezbollah leader voices regret over raid that sparked war

Says he wouldn't have ordered capture of Israelis

BEIRUT -- Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a television interview aired yesterday that he would not have ordered the capture of two Israeli soldiers last month if he had known it would lead to a war.

Hezbollah guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two more in a cross-border raid July 12, which sparked 34 days of fighting that ended Aug. 14. Five other Israeli soldiers were killed as they pursued the militants into Lebanon.

``We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude," he said in an interview with Lebanon's New TV station. ``You ask me, if I had known on July 11 . . . that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not."

Nasrallah also said the United Nations and Italy had initiated contacts about beginning negotiations on a prisoner swap.

Israeli officials have declined to comment on the record about the prospects of a prisoner exchange, citing the extreme sensitivity of the issue. But military officials said this month that Israel is holding 13 Hezbollah prisoners and the bodies of dozens of guerrillas that it could swap for the two captive soldiers, but that it would not include any Palestinian prisoners in such a deal.

``The Israelis have acknowledged that this [issue] is headed for negotiations and a [prisoner ] exchange," he said. ``Contacts recently began for negotiations."

He said Italy and the UN had made contacts to help mediate a prisoner swap with Israel, but did not specify whether they had contacted Hezbollah directly.

``The Italians seem to be getting close and are trying to get into the subject. The United Nations is interested," Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah said Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, is in charge of the negotiations. He added that the subject would be discussed during UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's visit to Beirut today.

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