BEIRUT: Lebanon aims to invite tenders to explore for offshore gas within three months, the energy minister said on Sunday, downplaying the risk of conflict with Israel despite a dispute over the maritime border.

“Our target is to begin within three months,” Energy Minister Jibran Bassil told AFP.

“We now have everything required for an oil company to have enough information to begin its activities, and we are on the right track to start offshore drilling.”

Bassil said Lebanon hoped to have exploration contracts with international oil companies signed and sealed by the end of the year.

He said European, U.S., Chinese and Russian firms had already shown serious interest in drilling off Lebanon’s coast.

“Every big oil company has begun initial talks to explore offshore drilling and bought data to that end,” he said.

Bassil played down the risk of conflict with Israel over the potential reserves, despite a longstanding dispute over the maritime boundary between the two neighbours, which remain technically in a state of war.

“We are working on making potential drilling a factor of stability, not a factor of conflict or instability,” Bassil said.

“I believe that Israel has no interest in threatening our oil resources,” he added.

“It has resources itself — it’s a balance of power, and Lebanon now has enough power to protect its own resources.”

Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated cabinet endorsed plans to implement legislation on Wednesday that will clear the way for offshore oil and gas exploration.

In August, parliament passed a law setting Lebanon’s maritime boundary and Exclusive Economic Zone.

Lebanon has also submitted to the United Nations a maritime map that conflicts significantly with one proposed by Israel.

Lebanon argues its map is in line with an armistice accord drawn up in 1949, an agreement which is not contested by Israel.

The disputed zone consists of about 854 square kilometres (330 square miles), and suspected energy reserves there could generate billions of dollars.

Lebanon has been slow to exploit its maritime resources compared with other eastern Mediterranean countries. Israel, Cyprus and Turkey are all much more advanced in drilling for oil and gas.

The Hezbollah-dominated government has warned that Lebanon will not give up its maritime rights and accuses Israel of violating its waters, territory and air space.

The Iranian-backed Shiite militant group fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006 that destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mainly soldiers.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::