BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Tuesday that two Israeli soldiers who were captured by Hezbollah guerrillas in a cross-border raid that sparked 34 days of fighting are reportedly alive, as is a third soldier seized earlier by Palestinian militants.
The veteran civil rights leader, who was in Lebanon and planned to travel to Israel Wednesday, said he received the information in meetings Monday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Khaled Mashaal, political leader of Hamas.
"The president (Assad) believes that the two held somewhere by Hezbollah are alive," Jackson said.
None of the soldiers has been heard from since their captures.
Miri Eisen, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Jackson was "not the first international figure to have been told so, though he is the first Westerner that I can recall that actually sat down with Khaled Mashaal."
"Obviously under any kind of international law, we should have been given a sign of life immediately," Eisen said. "But these are terrorists, though we'd like to believe them, we continue to demand the unconditional release of all three."
The soldiers' relatives met Tuesday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was visiting Israel as part of an 11-day trip through the Middle East to try to shore up the fragile cease-fire.
Karnit Goldwasser, whose husband, Ehud, was captured by Hezbollah guerrillas, told Israel TV after the meeting that Annan gave them no new information about the fate of their loved ones.
"But the good news was that we got a personal pledge from the secretary general of the U.N. that he accepts the mission to get the three kidnapped soldiers home and that's a really big thing," she said.
The relatives said they had heard lip service from many international officials about efforts to get their relatives freed.
"We asked him to be the one to start turning words into deeds and bring about their return home, all three," Karnit Goldwasser said.
Hezbollah seized the two Israeli soldiers July 12 in a cross-border raid that started the war with Israel, which ended with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire Aug. 14. Palestinian militants in Gaza captured the Israeli soldier in an earlier raid on June 25.
Jackson said Syria, a main backer of both Hamas and Hezbollah, wanted to be involved in a prisoner swap that included the three Israelis and Syrian nationals detained by Israel in the Golan Heights. Israel has ruled out negotiations or a prisoner swap to secure the men's release.
Jackson is leading a 10-member ecumenical delegation on a visit to the region to meet with political and religious leaders.
He has had success several times in the past in negotiating the release of political hostages.
In 1984, he met with President Hafez Assad of Syria and arranged the release of a Navy pilot whose plane was shot down over Lebanon during an American airstrike against a Syrian anti-aircraft position a month earlier. Also that year, Jackson traveled to Cuba and persuaded Fidel Castro to release 48 American and Cuban political prisoners.
In 1990, he helped win the release from Iraq of more than 700 foreign women and children detained as human shields against an American military attack after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He also persuaded Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 to free three Americans he was holding prisoner.