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US Secretary of State Meets Key Hezbollah Allies in Lebanon

Image: US Secretary of State Meets Key Hezbollah Allies in Lebanon
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Thursday, 15 February 2018 07:35 AM

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with key allies of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group on Thursday, during a brief stopover in Beirut as part of a regional trip.

The visit comes amid a growing dispute between Lebanon and its southern neighbor, Israel, over oil and gas reserves, and Israel's construction of a border wall that Lebanon says encroaches on its territory.

Tillerson was expected to discuss the heightened tensions in his talks with the country's top officials, including President Michel Aoun, Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — who all maintain close relations with the militant Hezbollah group. He is also scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Tillerson, who arrived in Beirut from neighboring Jordan, is the most senior official from the Trump administration to visit Lebanon and the first by a U.S. secretary of state in four years.

Israel has recently escalated its threats over Lebanon's invitation for offshore gas exploration bids along the countries' maritime border claiming that Lebanon will be drilling in areas owned by Israel. Lebanese officials deny the Israeli statements, saying the area where the country plans to drill belongs to Lebanon.

The long-standing dispute resurfaced recently as Lebanon signed a deal with an international consortium to start exploratory offshore drilling next year.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the exploration tender as " provocative" and suggested that Lebanon had put out invitations for bids from international groups for a gas field "which is by all accounts ours."

His comments drew sharp condemnation from Hezbollah, as well as Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western ally.

There are over 800 square kilometers (300 square miles) of waters claimed by the two countries. U.S. officials have previously tried to mediate the dispute, including most recently by David Satterfield, the U.S. acting assistance secretary of state who visited the border area in south Lebanon last week, and was accompanying Tillerson on Thursday.

Aoun, who kept Tillerson waiting for several minutes at the palace ahead of their meeting, said he asked Tillerson to work on preventing what he said were ongoing Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and said that Lebanon rejects Israeli claims over parts of the countries' maritime border.

It was not clear why Tillerson was left waiting, but he arrived at the palace earlier than scheduled.

At his meeting with Berri, a pro-Hezbollah politician, one of the photographers asked the men to shake hands. Berri laughed and said: "Why do you need that?"

They then looked at each other, chuckled and obliged.

Tillerson, during his short visit, is also expected to reinforce support for Lebanon's government headed by Hariri and for the Lebanese armed forces.

At a news conference in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Wednesday, he said Iran's influence over Hezbollah is "unhelpful to Lebanon's long-term future" but added: "We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon."

The visit comes amid a new U.S. effort to squeeze Iran with sanctions against Hezbollah and the Trump administration is hitting Hezbollah's financial network with new penalties as part of its efforts to limit Iran's influence throughout the region.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with key allies of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group on Thursday, during a brief stopover in Beirut as part of a regional trip.
us, lebanon, hezbollah allies, rex tillerson
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2018-35-15
Thursday, 15 February 2018 07:35 AM
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