U.S. Secretary of State in Lebanon, Meets Senior Officials

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Lebanon Thursday where he held talks with senior Lebanese officials.

Tillerson's visit, part of a tour of the Middle East, comes at a time of tension between Lebanon and neighboring Israel, notably over the role of Hizbullah and Israel's encroachment on the country’s land and maritime border.

Tillerson first met with President Michel Aoun and has reportedly discussed Lebanon's gas and border dispute with Israel.

Tillerson left the meeting with Aoun without making a statement, but he signed the visitors’ guest book at the Baabda Presidential Palace, marking his first official visit to Lebanon.

The U.S. embassy said on its Twitter page that Tillerson “discussed with Aoun and Foreign Affairs Minister Jebran Bassil the U.S.-Lebanese bilateral relations, reiterating the U.S. support for Lebanese state institutions, especially the Lebanese army and for a strong, stable and prosperous Lebanon.”

He later held talks with Speaker Nabih Berri at Ain el-Tineh.

The embassy said Tillerson “reaffirmed to Berri the importance of the close U.S.-Lebanese partnership as the two countries work together to pursue common goals that advance Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability, and prosperity.”

The U.S. diplomat then headed to the Grand Serail where he met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Israel has recently escalated its threats over Lebanon's invitation for offshore gas exploration bids along the countries' maritime border.

Israel claims that Lebanon will be drilling in areas owned by Israel. Lebanese officials contest those claims, saying the area where it plans to drill belongs to Lebanon.

The long-standing dispute resurfaced recently as Lebanon invited companies to sign exploration deals. U.S. officials have previously tried to mediate the dispute.

The Iran-backed group Hizbulah, a member of Hariri's government, is an arch-foe of Israel and branded a "terrorist" organization by the United States.

It is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has fighters on the ground in the war-torn country supporting the regime.

Hizbullah's influence was at the heart of a political crisis in Lebanon over Hariri's shock resignation announced from Saudi Arabia in November that was later rescinded.

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