Lebanon signs first offshore oil and gas contracts - minister

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Israel says one of two blocks in the eastern Mediterranean where Lebanon wants to drill for oil belongs to it, and last week denounced any exploration by Beirut as "provocative".

Lebanon has signed a deal with an global consortium to start exploratory offshore drilling for oil and gas in what the country hopes will help boost its struggling economy.

"The block lies entirely within Lebanon's territorial and economic waters", the Lebanese army said in its statement.

"Today, we announce that we have started our petroleum path ... after signing the agreements and launching the exploration activities", Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil said at a ceremony in Beirut.

French energy giant Total and Italy's Eni each hold a 40 percent stake in the consortium, and Russia's Novatek has a 20 percent stake.

Lieberman's remarks came a few days before February 9 when Beirut is set to officially sign contracts with three global firms, allowing exploration to start.

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The announcement comes after Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week that oil and gas exploration projects in Block 9 were "very provocative" and called on global companies not to carry out work. The dispute is over parts of Lebanon's block 9 that is on the border with Israel.

A major find in Lebanon's southernmost waters could raise the possibility of a dispute with Israel, which is developing a number of offshore gas deposits, with one large field, Tamar, already producing gas, and the larger Leviathan field set to go online next year.

He added that the oil companies declared that there is no reason "that they should not speed the process and they should start right away".

The second well will be drilled in Block 9 more than 25 km (15 miles) from the border, he said at the ceremony.

Lebanese and Israeli officials said David Satterfield, acting assistant US secretary of state, was in Israel last week and in Lebanon this week on a mediation mission.

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