'J'lem, Lebanon not looking for maritime border conflict'

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon says in interview that signals from both sides indicate gov'ts "think they can de-conflict" border dispute.

UN Special Coordinator to Lebanon Michael Williams 311 (R) (photo credit: Khaled Al Hariri / Reuters)
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.
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.
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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.
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," Williams said.
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 added.
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.