BEIRUT -- Lebanon's prime minister urged his Italian counterpart on Thursday to have Italian companies invest in his country as it grapples with deepening economic challenges.
"The coming period in Lebanon is a period of work ... with many investment opportunities," Saad Hariri told visiting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Conte is the first foreign official to visit Lebanon after Hariri's government was sworn in last week following a deadlock that last nearly nine months.
Lebanon is struggling with mammoth public debt, soaring unemployment and deteriorating credit ratings. Hariri's government hopes to unlock around $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged by international donors at a conference in Paris last year.
Lebanon in 2017 approved licenses for an international consortium led by France's Total, Italy's ENI and Russia's Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of 10 blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, including one that is disputed in part with Israel.
Italy also supports Lebanese military and security forces and has over 1,000 peacekeepers in the U.N. force monitoring the cease-fire with Israel.
Conte said he discussed with Hariri the recent tension along the frontier with Israel, which said it had discovered a number of attack tunnels built by Lebanese Hezbollah and added hopes that dialogue would alleviate the tensions.
He also declared Italy would continue its support to the Lebanese government which is dealing with more than 1 million Syrian refugees, in a country of 4 million people.
Hariri expressed optimism that "Lebanon can be a regional center for the Italian private sector."
Conte said his government is in the "initial stage" of assessing whether to reduce the presence of Italian battalions abroad. He said the Italian battalion in Mosul, Iraq, is expected to withdraw in March.