updated 8/15/2006 9:11:00 PM ET 2006-08-16T01:11:00

Trying to build on a cease-fire in Lebanon, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson launched an effort Tuesday to arrange the release of prisoners held by Hezbollah and Israel.

“The cease-fire is a step in the right direction,” Jackson said after talking to the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors here. “Release of prisoners would reinforce the positive direction.”

Jackson, an experienced go-between, has brought Americans home from Syria, Cuba, Iraq and Yugoslavia. And, he said in an interview, “in each instance we had a no-talk policy in that country.”

The cease-fire resolution approved unanimously last week by the U.N. Security Council did not demand that Hezbollah release two Israeli soldiers whose abduction touched off the 34-day conflict. Nor did it demand Israel release Arab prisoners. But in the preamble to the resolution, the council said the situation should be addressed urgently.

Jackson began his effort with a telephone conversation with Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador, appealing to his government to consider “some exchange of prisoners” as a goodwill gesture “if there is movement on the two abducted Israelis,” Jackson said.

He then called on Syrian Ambassador Iyad Moustapha, whose government has strong ties to the Hezbollah militia.

“I asked him to make an appeal to his president, Bashar Assad, on a humanitarian basis to appeal to whoever is appropriate, maybe Hezbollah, to seek the whereabouts and grant the release of the two Israeli soldiers,” Jackson said.

“He was positive and said he would convey the message,” Jackson said. Although Jackson said he couldn’t find out about the health of the prisoners, he said he had the impression they were “all right.”

Calls for direct talks with Syria, Iran
Jackson said he and other religious leaders would go to Syria “if we had the notion we could gain the release of prisoners on both sides. ... Such an effort would not be in conflict with our present policies because it would be humanitarian.”

However, Jackson said the United States should be talking to Syria and to Iran, which it accuses of being the principal source of Hezbollah’s weapons.

“We are negotiating with one hand tied behind our back. We talked to Russia through the height of the Cold War,” he said.

A State Department spokesman, Justin Higgins, said Jackson’s intervention with Syria and Israel was undertaken as a private individual.

Successful track record
On several occasions, Jackson has successfully intervened on behalf of Americans and others held hostage or prisoner in foreign lands.

In January 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 air strike against a Syrian anti-aircraft position a month earlier. Later that year, Jackson traveled to Cuba and persuaded Fidel Castro to release 48 American and Cuban political prisoners.

Jackson, in 1990, 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 persuaded Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 to free three Americans he was holding prisoner.

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