Lebanon Taps River at the Center of Israel Row
WAZZANI, Lebanon (Reuters - 16 October) - Lebanon started pumping water Wednesday from a southern river that also supplies Israel -- a project that has drawn Israeli ire and U.S. mediation to avoid a regional flare-up.
Israel has said it takes a ``grave view'' of the project to pipe water from the Wazzani river to parched southern villages. But Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbollah has warned it would retaliate ``within seconds'' to any Israeli attack on the new pumping station.
Amid tight security, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud officially opened the project on the Wazzani, a tributary of the Hasbani river that feeds the Jordan river and the Sea of Galilee -- Israel's biggest freshwater reservoir.
Lebanese security forces stood guard as Lahoud sent water gushing through the pipe at the center of the row, which has prompted Washington to dispatch envoys to cool tensions and drawn U.S. calls for Lebanon not to begin pumping.
Hundreds of red and white balloons were released as the water began to flow, and revelers splashed around in the water.
Lebanon says the amount of water it plans to use -- up to an extra 140 million cubic feet a year -- is within its rights under international law.
It now pumps seven million cubic meters a year.
Lebanon has also said it would not be talked out of plans to tap water from the Wazzani for irrigation, following suggestions that it limit use of the river to drinking water.
A report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) this month said Lebanon had not broken any international agreements but said the row should be resolved diplomatically.
``It is a duty of the Lebanese government to supply local residents with water for domestic and other use,'' said a copy of the report obtained by Reuters. ``We consider that the Lebanese government has not breached any international agreement and that United Nations mediation is necessary.''
Thousands of people, waving Lebanese flags, turned out to watch the ceremony as Lebanese and Israeli security forces patrolled the border area near the Wazzani, witnesses said.
Israeli jets have circled over the area in recent weeks as workers put the finishing touches on the project.