The kidnapping of 23 Finnish soldiers by an Israeli-backed militia in south Lebanon has embroiled Israel in an embarrassing confrontation with United Nations forces in Lebanon and with Finland. By Sunday afternoon, 20 of the Finnish soldiers kidnapped Friday had not been released, and in Beirut a spokesman of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon said the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army had seized yet another UNIFIL soldier.
According to the spokesman, a French colonel who had been negotiating the release of the Finns with the South Lebanon Army had himself been taken hostage. By Sunday evening, however, the colonel was released.
According to a UNIFIL spokesman, that left 20 UNIFIL soldiers being held by the South Lebanon Army, which in a goodwill gesture had released three of the Finns Saturday.
The separate captures and releases led to some confusion in the count of just how many Finns were being held.
The holding of UNIFIL soldiers by the South Lebanon Army also raises new questions about Israel's plan to maintain that army as its police force inside south Lebanon.
``This incident is going to bring to the open for discussion in Israel the question of are we leaving Lebanon or are we not leaving,'' said Dr. Yosef Olmert, an expert on Lebanon with Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Strategic Studies.
As Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon nears completion, the South Lebanon Army -- armed, paid, and trained by Israel -- has come under increasing pressure from Amal, the Shiite Muslim militia that is consolidating its power in the south.
Amal has vowed to continue to strike at the 1,200-man South Lebanon Army, a force composed mostly of Christians, until Israel gives up the notion of maintaining a narrow security strip above its northern border and dismantles the army.
Last week, 28 men, all Shiites, joined the Amal forces after deserting the South Lebanon Army. Friday, 11 more disappeared from their post at the village of Qantara and turned up in the hands of the Amal Shiite militia.
Officials of the South Lebanon Army assert that these militiamen were captured by Finnish UNIFIL soldiers during a clash at Qantara, a village evacuated by the Israelis June 6.
According to a South Lebanon Army spokesman, the militiamen were disarmed by the Finns, who then turned them over to Amal.
UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel said Sunday that the details of the incident were not known. But he insisted that UNIFIL troops ``never attack'' in south Lebanon and said UNIFIL believes the 11 South Lebanon Army militiamen chose to defect to Amal.
To further complicate the incident, Amal leader and Lebanese Cabinet minister Nabih Berri said Saturday that the 11 men would be returned only if Israel agreed to release Shiite prisoners it is holding in Israel, and to pull the South Lebanon Army out of the Christian town of Jezzin.
Throughout the weekend, diplomatic channels hummed as the Finnish government contacted Israeli officials in New York and Jerusalem to urge that Israel intervene with officials of the South Lebanon Army and order that the Finnish soldiers be released.
UNIFIL insisted that the Finns must be released before any other step was taken.
Gen. Antoine Lahad, the commander of the South Lebanon Army, said the Finns would not be released until Amal had turned the 11 men over to UNIFIL.
United Nations sources said privately they were convinced that the 11 militiamen had deserted and that the militia itself was disintegrating.
UN diplomat Jean Claude Aimee has been in the region for weeks, trying to convince Israel that the best way to ensure the security of its northern border is to withdraw completely from south Lebanon and allow UNIFIL to deploy to the border.
UN Undersecretary-General Brian Urquhart is due in Jerusalem Tuesday, and it is expected that he, too, will again press Israel to abandon its notion of keeping a security zone above its northern border.
Following talks with the Lebanese and the Syrians, UN officials have concluded that, if Israel insists on supporting the South Lebanon Army and on keeping its own patrols moving through the area, attacks across its border will continue and regional instability will increase.
Some UN sources have said that if Israel maintains its current policy, the UN may be forced to pull its troops out of the area.
If UNIFIL were to stay, the troops would be in danger of getting caught in a vicious cross fire between Israel and the many hard-line factions that will infiltrate the area to carry on the fight against Israel's occupation, the sources said.
The 5,600-man UNIFIL force has been stationed in south Lebanon since the Israelis drove across the border in March 1978 and pushed the Palestine Liberation Organization behind the Litani River.
Relations between Israel and UNIFIL have been bad for years, but Mr. Goksel said Sunday that the situation has been particularly tense in recent weeks as the Israelis pull out, leaving the South Lebanon Army behind. UNIFIL troops have reported an average of 10 to 15 clashes a week with the militia, Goksel said.
Israeli officials said privately Sunday that they would like to defuse the latest incident by securing the release of the Finnish soldiers.
But Lahad has threatened to resign his post if Israel does not back him up and get the 11 South Lebanon Army soldiers back.
``It is Lahad's struggle for survival,'' said one senior official.
``If he releases the Finns first, he feels he is finished. It would be a defeat at the hands of Amal which his already limited prestige can't sustain.''