BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a TV interview aired Sunday that he would not have ordered the capture of two Israeli soldiers if he had known it would lead to such 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.
"We did not think, even one percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. 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," he said in an interview with Lebanon's New TV station.
Nasrallah also said "contacts" for negotiations on a prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas had already begun.
"The Israelis have acknowledged that this (issue) is headed for negotiations and a (prisoners) exchange," he said. "Contacts recently began for negotiations."
He said Italy and the United Nations 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.
The guerrilla leader did not specify in which capacity Italy had expressed interest — on its own or on Israel's behalf.
A senior Israeli government official declined to comment on such contacts, but said Israel does not negotiate with terrorists.
"We continue to demand the unconditional return of the of the two servicemen," said the official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the matter with the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Earlier Sunday, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said there were no negotiations on a prisoner release.
"Right now no, but I expect that concerning the prisoners in the north, we shall have to wait until the Lebanese government will take charge completely over its land in accordance with the U.N. resolution," he said.
In Syria, American civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson raised the issue of a prisoner swap in talks with President Bashar Assad, but he did not elaborate on the Syrian leader's response.
Jackson was in Damascus on the first leg of a tour that also included stops in Lebanon and Israel. He said he was there to gauge the "views" of Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli officials, and appeal to them to stick to the U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
Nasrallah said Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was in charge of the negotiations.
He added that the subject would be discussed during U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's visit to Beirut on Monday. There had been "some contacts" to arrange a meeting between him and Annan, he said, but that it was unlikely for security reasons.
Nasrallah went into hiding on the first day of the war and his whereabouts are unknown. He said in the interview Sunday that the Israelis "would not hesitate" to kill him if they knew where he was hiding.
Nasrallah also said he did not believe there would be a second bout of fighting with Israel. "The current Israeli situation, and the available givens tell us that we are not heading to another round," he said.
Nasrallah called any possible Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops "legitimate" as long as even one Israeli soldier remained in Lebanon.
Lebanese officials have said continuing Israeli overflights violate the 2-week-old cease-fire, and Annan proclaimed an Israeli commando raid one week into the truce a violation. Hezbollah has not retaliated, but Nasrallah said the group would "choose the time and place" to strike back.
"If we have been patient until now, it does not mean we will be patient forever, but we are not obliged to reveal the limits of our patience," he said.
Also Sunday, 245 French soldiers arrived at Beirut's airport to help the Lebanese army rebuild bridges destroyed or damaged by Israeli airstrikes. Four French military planes landed at two-hour intervals throughout the day, carrying about 60 soldiers each from the Second Regiment of the Legion of Genie.
"Our job is to work jointly with the Lebanese army in rebuilding bridges. The French troops will be here for about one and a half months at least," said Lt. Philip Toroller, an officer of the French military mission based at the French Embassy in Beirut.
Toroller said the French troops would go first to Damour, a coastal town south of Beirut, where they would begin work before moving to other areas in south Lebanon.
France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler and an architect of a U.N. Security Council resolution to increase the peacekeeping force's size, has about 400 soldiers in UNIFIL now and plans to expand that number to 2,000.
On Saturday, two French ships arrived in Beirut carrying military equipment, trucks and jeeps for French troops who will be part of the expanded peacekeeping force. The equipment would be used to open damaged roads, detonate unexploded ordnance and check border areas where the international force can set up new posts.
Meanwhile, Malaysia urged the United Nations to let its soldiers join the peacekeeping force despite Israel's opposition to troops from predominantly Muslim nations without diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.
Malaysian troops "will not take sides and will do the job according to the U.N. mandate," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama, late Saturday.
"Our record (in peacekeeping missions) is good, whether in Somalia, Bosnia, Congo or (East) Timor, and our service with the U.N. has been acknowledged by other countries," Syed Hamid said. "But, if the U.N. wants to heed to the wishes of Israel, what can we do?"
Malaysia has offered about 1,000 soldiers for an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, and the U.N. wants Muslim troops included to lend credibility to what so far is a mostly European force. Bangladesh and Indonesia also have offered to participate, but neither has diplomatic ties with Israel.
While Israel does not have any veto, its opposition to a country could influence which troops are included.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Saturday that Israel had spoken to the governments of several Muslim nations with which it has diplomatic relations, but primarily to Turkey.
Turkey, which would be acceptable to all parties, has not decided whether to join the mission. Regev did not specify the other nations contacted by Israel, but Jordan and Egypt are among the Muslim countries that Israel has relations with.