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October 12, 2002

Lebanon prepared to restrict controversial water tapping

BEIRUT (AFP) - Lebanon appears to be compromising in its simmering water dispute with Israel, which bluntly threatened to invade its northern neighbour over its tapping of a key border spring.

Beirut is now reportedly prepared to restrict the amount of water it taps from the southern Wazzani spring, which was visited Saturday by a key US State Department water official.

The country may now only pump drinking water from the controversial spring, and not use it for large-scale irrigation projects in nearby villages, as had originally been planned, the An-Nahar daily said Saturday.

"Lebanon will make do with pumping drinking water from the Wazzani river, from Wednesday, and will put off indefinitely irrigation projects following American 'comments,'" the newspaper quoted informed sources as saying.

Specifically, An-Nahar attributed the decision to limit the drawdown to "American comments contained in a report prepared by an American expert."

The newspaper did not say to which report it was referring, but US State Department water expert Charles Lawson has been working to defuse the crisis.

On Saturday morning, he toured the Wazzani spring site, protected by 50 elite army commandos and some 20 bodyguards from the US embassy.

He spent about 20 minutes inspecting the pipes installed at the source of the spring and one of the pumping stations about a kilometre (half a mile) away in the area close to the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Israeli soldiers watched closely through binoculars from a few hundred metres (yards) away.

But fighters from the Shiite militia Hezbollah, which effectively controls parts of the south, were deployed in force in the area during the visit, but remained out of sight during Lawson's tour.

Lawson also took a look at the Hasbani riverbed, to the north, which is dry at this time of year.

He first visited Lebanon and Israel last month. He returned to Lebanon on Tuesday, and met the next day with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

On Friday, Lebanon also delivered a report to the UN Security Council and the European Union on its exploitation of the Wazzani.

The report said two pumps could exploit a total of 10 million cubic meters (325 million cubic feet) a year, much less than the 35 million cubic meters (1.235 billion cubic feet) granted to Lebanon under an unratified 1955 agreement.

Israel's hardline Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has threatened war over Lebanon's plan to tap the Wazzani.

The river is the main source of Lebanon's Hasbani river. That flows into the River Jordan, which, in turn, feeds the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main fresh water source.

On Thursday, Sharon said the "Americans are trying to find a solution, and the case is the subject of contacts between the parties."

Lebanon plans to provide drinking water initially to 20 villages in the border area, which was under Israeli occupation for 22 years until the May 2000 troop withdrawal.

The pumping station was successfully tested on Wednesday.