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Israel and Lebanon start UN-sponsored talks to settle maritime border dispute

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A general view shows a base of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
A general view shows a base of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
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Lebanon and Israel on Wednesday concluded the first-round of US-mediated indirect talks to resolve their maritime border dispute.

The second round of talks is scheduled for October 28, Lebanese state media reported.

The two countries, still technically at war, insist the UN-sponsored talks are purely technical and not a sign of any normalisation of ties.

The talks took place at a UN post along the border known as Ras Naqoura on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Naqoura.

The US has been mediating the issue for around a decade, but only earlier this month a breakthrough was reached over an agreement on a framework for mediated talks.

The two neighbours both claim 860 square km of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zone.

Lebanon, whose economy is in tatters, began offshore drilling earlier this year and hopes to start drilling for gas in the disputed area in the coming months. Lebanon has divided its expanse of waters into 10 blocks, of which three are in the area under dispute with Israel.

Israel has already developed a natural gas industry elsewhere in its economic waters, producing enough gas for domestic consumption and to export to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.

"We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalisation or some kind of peace process," a senior official with Israel's energy ministry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

"Our aim is very strict and limited and therefore hopefully achievable," he added.

Lebanon's outgoing Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi said Lebanese negotiators will be "more fierce than they expect because we have nothing to lose." He added that if Lebanon's economy collapses, "there is no interest in making concessions."

It is unclear how long the talks will go on for.

The US' envoy to the Middle East, Assistant Secretary David Schenker, arrived in Lebanon on Monday to "facilitate the opening session of negotiations", a State Department statement said earlier this week. Washington's ambassador to Algeria, John Desrocher, will serve as the US mediator for the duration of the talks.

"As announced on October 1, the framework agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese ad Israeli citizens alike," the statement added.

The Israeli delegation will be led by the director-general of the Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri, while the Lebanese four-member team will be led by Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin, the army's deputy chief of staff.

Hezbollah, which wields considerable power in Lebanese politics but is considered to be a terrorist organisation by Israel and the US, said in a statement earlier this week that the country's delegation should be reformed so that it only includes members of the military.

The Hezbollah bloc in parliament said that defining the border of "national sovereignty" is the job of the Lebanese state.

Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech two years ago that if asked by the government, his group is ready to use its arsenal, consisting of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, to defend Lebanon's economic rights.