Fri, Aug 10, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Canadian leader starts Arctic sovereignty tour

COLD WAR Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to spend billions defending Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic, where a military port is also being planned


Canada's prime minister began a three-day trip to the Arctic on Wednesday in an effort to assert sovereignty over the region a week after Russia symbolically staked a claim to the North Pole by sending submarines.

"All Canadians need to recognize, there is a convergence of economic, environmental and strategic factors occurring here that will have critical impacts on the future of our country," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at his first stop in Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories.

The North is "largely untamed, sometimes harsh and always magnificent, a vast storehouse of energy and mineral riches, and a precious reservoir of ecological and cultural treasures," he said.

And he vowed to "take action to vigorously protect our Arctic sovereignty as international interest in the region increases."

Although Harper's visit has been planned for months, it has taken on new importance since the Russian subs dove 4km to the Arctic shelf and planted their country's flag in a titanium capsule.

"The Russians sent a submarine to drop a small flag at the bottom of the ocean. We're sending our prime minister to reassert Canadian sovereignty," a senior government official told reporters on condition of anonymity because his language was undiplomatic.

Five countries -- Canada, Russia, the US, Norway and Denmark -- are competing to secure subsurface rights to the Arctic seabed. One study by the US Geological Survey estimates the Arctic has as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

Harper, who has pledged to spend billions defending Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic, is expected to announce the location of a planned military deep water port later in the week.

"Our government has an aggressive Arctic agenda," said Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister's spokesman. "Economic development -- unleashing the resource-based potential of the North, environmental protection -- protecting the unique Northern environment, national sovereignty -- protecting our land, airspace and territorial waters."

Last month, Harper announced that six to eight new patrol ships will be built to guard the Northwest Passage sea route in the Arctic, which the US insists does not belong to Canada.

US Ambassador David Wilkins has criticized Harper's promise to defend the Arctic, calling the passage "neutral waters."

Harper said last month the deep water port would serve as a naval operating base and would also be used for commercial purposes. He might also announce a military training center in the Arctic.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it," Harper said.

The disputed Northwest Passage runs below the North Pole from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. As global warming melts the passage -- which is navigable only during a slim window in the summer -- the waters are exposing unexplored resources, and becoming an attractive shipping route. Commercial ships can shave off almost 4,000km from Europe to Asia compared with the current routes through the Panama Canal.

Canada also wants to assert its claim over Hans Island at the entrance to the Northwest Passage.

The rock, one-seventh the size of New York's Central Park, is wedged between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Danish-ruled Greenland, and for more than 20 years has been a subject of unusually bitter exchanges between the two NATO allies.

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