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Israeli move threatens Lebanon's oil wealth: Lebanon's Berri

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s parliament speaker said on Thursday an Israeli move to license energy exploration near a disputed maritime boundary threatened to drain Lebanese oil wealth before its own drilling had started.

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Nabih Berri on Wednesday accused Israel of breaching Lebanese waters by licensing a company to exploit the area. Asked about the accusation, Israel’s foreign ministry declined to comment.

Lebanon last year licensed a consortium of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out the country’s first offshore energy exploration in two blocks.

One of the blocks, Block 9, contains waters disputed with Israel.

Berri, speaking after a meeting with visiting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, said the Israeli move threatened “to drain a whole basin and a large part of the oil wealth” before Lebanon had started to drill.

“Therefore it was necessary for us to warn companies including (Italy’s) Eni and others and I will raise this matter in France with the French president too”, he said.

Lebanon sits on the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean - along with Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Syria - where a number of big gas fields have been discovered since 2009.

Lebanon has said the dispute would not stop it benefiting from potential undersea reserves in Block 9, while consortium operator Total has said it would not drill the block’s first well near the disputed sliver of water.

The unresolved maritime border dispute is over a sea zone of about 860 sq km (330 square miles) which extends along the edge of three of Lebanon’s energy blocks.

U.S. diplomats mediated last year after a spike in tensions that also involved a row over a border wall Israel built and over Iran-backed Hezbollah’s growing arsenal.

Writing by Tom Perry/Ellen Francis; Editing by Alexandra Hudson