UN Special Coordinator to Lebanon Michael Williams 311 (R).
(photo credit: Khaled Al Hariri / Reuters)
BEIRUT - Lebanese and Israeli leaders believe they can avoid conflict over their disputed maritime border despite rival claims to potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters, a senior United Nations official said.
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The two countries, who remain formally at war, are disputing an 850-square-km stretch of sea off their coast, close to an area where US and Israeli firms have discovered two massive natural gas fields.
In July Israel outlined maritime economic borders that challenged what it said were boundaries submitted by Lebanon to the United Nations. Lebanon, which has yet to explore off its own coast, last week passed a law to set out its own borders.
UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said signals he had received from the two countries -- "from the prime minister's office in both cases" -- suggested they were seeking to avoid confrontation.
"Neither of them are looking for a scrap on this... On the contrary they
think they can de-conflict it," he told Reuters in an interview.
Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, which fought Israel
to a standstill in a 34-day war five years ago and helped bring Lebanese
Prime Minister Najib Mikati to power in January, has said it will
defend the country's natural resources.
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The issue gained importance after the discovery in the last two years of
two natural gas fields in Israeli waters estimated to be worth tens of
billions of dollars.
Lebanon has not laid claim to those reserves, but has asked the United
Nations to ensure Israel's plans do not encroach on offshore reserves it
believes lie in its own waters.
Williams, who visited Israel last week, said his talks showed there was "no magic wand" to solve the disagreement.
But Israel did "not want to let this move towards dispute and might even
be in favor of some sort of outside involvement" to resolve the
maritime border, although it had not asked the United Nations to
mediate.'We expect Lebanon to act against UNIFIL attackers'
Williams also called on the Lebanese government to do more to bring to
justice the perpetrators of two attacks against United Nations
peacekeeping convoys in the south of the country.
A roadside bomb blew up a United Nations vehicle near the southern port
of Sidon two weeks ago, wounding six UNIFIL peacekeepers. In May a
similar attack wounded six Italian members of the UNIFIL force.
Both attacks came on the eve of decisions in Rome and France about
whether to maintain their troop commitments to the 12,000-strong UN
force that deployed to keep peace near the frontier with Israel and
prevent transfers of weapons to the area, a Hezbollah stronghold.
"We are expecting the Lebanese government to do more and pursue these
crimes more intensely, and to make arrests and bring people to justice,"
The bombing of the French convoy was a sophisticated attack which "may
have been...an attempt to intimidate France on the eve of a difficult
decision it has to take about maintaining French troops in UNIFIL", he
After the attack in May on Italian peacekeepers, Italy said it was
looking to reduce the size of its contingent in Lebanon and Williams
said France may take similar measures.
"All options are there including complete withdrawal. I think it will
come out on the side of withdrawing some troops and that's bad news for
us because that -- plus the Italians -- it puts pressure on the other
troops," he said.
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