BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Lebanon Wednesday began pumping water from the Wazzani River despite U.S. efforts to mediate a dispute between Beirut and Israel.
"It is our right to use the water defined in our share of the Wazzani spring," President Emile Lahoud told United Press International in an exclusive interview a few hours before the inauguration of the new pumping station.
Lebanon wants to use the water from the river, which flows for about 2 miles inside the country before entering Israel, for border-area villages.
With the additional 4 million cubic meters Beirut plans to pump from the Wazzani, Lebanon will have a combined 10 million cubic meters from the Wazzani and the Hasbani rivers, well below the 35 million cubic meters allowed under a 1995 agreement.
"We are using much less than our water rights as provided by the international agreements and norms," Lahoud said. "I can assure you according to international laws, what we are doing today is within our rights."
Israel is estimated to use 150 million cubic meters of water from the two rivers.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, Wednesday that Lebanon's decision could "cause a serious escalation" in tensions between the two countries.
"We cannot agree to unilateral steps and we retain the right to defend our water in accordance with the law and international law," Peres said. He added that he hoped "Lebanon will act as a member of the international community and in accordance with the norms acceptable in it."
Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, has said the Lebanese project was a cause for war between the two countries. The United States cautioned both countries that it would not tolerate any escalation in their dispute that would distract from its priority in the region -- dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The militant Hezbollah movement said on Tuesday that it would retaliate "within minutes" at already selected targets in Israel if the new pumping station on the Wazzani River was targeted.
The group was instrumental in forcing Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 after 22 years.
Asked what Lebanon would do if Israel attacked, Lahoud said: "As usual, we expect everything from Israel. When the time comes, we will think about this."
Lahoud headed to south Lebanon to join ministers, deputies and a large crowd of southern villagers for the inauguration of the pumping station.
U.S. Embassy officials who were invited to attend did not show up.
An embassy statement said Washington chose not to send a representative to the ceremony in keeping with its position that an isolated action from either of the two sides affects efforts to solve the water dispute in a peaceful and just way.
Under large banners that read: "Sharon is thirsty for blood and Lebanon thirsty for water," water from the Wazzani began to flow while local citizens danced and hundreds of red balloons were released into the air.
"This inauguration is not the end. It is the start," said Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri, who heads the Shiite Amal movement.
"Through the United Nations and in line with the international laws, we demand the drawing of a Blue Line that includes Lebanon's complete rights in its waters, springs and underground waters."
Last week, the United States dispatched a water expert to Lebanon to try to mediate a diplomatic solution to the water dispute, proposing that Lebanon pumps water from the Wazzani for drinking and home use only and not for irrigation purposes.
(Joshua Brilliant contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel.)