US official in Beirut to discuss border dispute with Israel

US official in Beirut to discuss border dispute with Israel

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BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri received a U.S. official Tuesday as Washington mediates a maritime border dispute with Israel.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield arrived earlier in the day to begin a two-day visit to meet officials in Lebanon, which is in an economic crisis. He did not speak to journalists after his meeting with Hariri.

Lebanon's economy is mired in debt and struggling to grow as the civil war in neighboring Syria stretches into its eighth year. The war has brought more than a million refugees into the Mediterranean nation. Beirut hopes that oil and gas brings cash into the state's dried up coffers.

Satterfield's visit comes a week after President Michel Aoun presented the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon with a "unified stance" regarding the demarcation of the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel.

Last month, Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Stefano del Col, that Beirut is ready to establish the maritime border and special economic zone with Israel similar to the one used to demarcate the land border between the two countries after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

There are some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of waters claimed by the two countries, which are technically in a state of conflict. Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006.

In December 2017, the Lebanese Cabinet approved licenses for three international companies to carry out exploratory drilling off the Lebanese coast. The licenses will allow Italy's Eni, France's Total and Russia's Novatek, who bid for two of Lebanon's 10 offshore blocks, to determine whether oil and gas exist.

Last month, Lebanon's Energy Minister Nada Boustani announced a second round of bidding for licenses to search offshore for oil. Boustani said the deadline for companies to submit their offers for three new blocks is Jan. 31, 2020.

Lebanon is expected to begin drilling for oil and gas later this year in block 4 that is off the coast north of Beirut and in block 9 along the maritime border with Israel in January 2020.

Lebanese governments have long sought energy development but political bickering and the dispute with Israel over the maritime border has caused delays.

Satterfield visited earlier Tuesday the headquarters of the Moronite Calthoic church, where he paid condolences for the passing away of its former patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who died on Sunday.

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