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An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea, while Lebanon and Israel resumed indirect talks over their disputed maritime border with U.S. mediation, off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. The Lebanese government invited on Monday a U.S. envoy mediating between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime border to return to Beirut as soon as possible to work out an agreement amid rising tensions along the border. Image Credit: AP

Beirut/Jerusalem: Lebanon said on Monday it would invite a US mediator to Beirut to continue negotiations over a disputed maritime boundary with Israel to prevent any escalation after accusing Israel of encroaching on contested waters.

The issue flared up on Sunday when a vessel operated by London-based Energean arrived off the coast to develop a gas field which Israel says is part of its exclusive economic zone but which Lebanon says falls within the contested waters.

In Israel’s first response to the Lebanese accusation, Energy Minister Karin Elharrar said on Monday the Lebanese account was “very far from reality”.

Lebanon’s president and caretaker prime minister agreed to invite US mediator Amos Hochstein to discuss “completing the negotiations to demarcate the southern maritime border and to work on concluding the issue as fast as possible to prevent any escalation that would not serve the state of stability in the region”, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on his Twitter feed.

He said Lebanon would contact major powers and the United Nations to affirm its position, confirming that any Israeli drilling or exploration in the disputed area would be “a provocation and an act of aggression” that threatens peace and security.

The United States began mediating indirect talks in 2020 to resolve the issue.

Energean said its floating production storage and offloading vessel arrived on Sunday at the Karish field, about 80km west of the city of Haifa, and it plans to bring it online in the third quarter.

In a statement on Sunday, the Lebanese presidency said Lebanon had sent a letter to the United Nations in recent weeks stating that Karish falls within the disputed area.

Elharrar told Tel Aviv radio 103 FM there was “unequivocally no” encroachment by Israel.

Lebanon is home to the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which has previously warned Israel against drilling in the disputed area until the issue is resolved, and said the group would take action if it did so.

Asked about the prospect of escalation, Elharrar said: “We are not there at all. Really, such is the disconnect (between rhetoric and reality) that I do not believe they would take action.” But she added: “Israel is making preparations (and) I recommend that no one try to surprise Israel.” There has been no immediate US comment.

Last year, Beirut expanded its claim in the disputed zone by around 1,400 square km.

Lebanon has yet to respond to an undisclosed proposal by the US envoy earlier this year.