Guyana has stepped up the pressure on Venezuela to explain why it intercepted a US-chartered ship surveying for oil in disputed waters, a move that threatens to revive a decades-old territorial dispute between South America’s biggest oil producer and one of its poorest nations.
The 87m-long survey research vessel was carrying five US oil workers who were conducting a seismic study under contract for Anadarko Petroleum Corp along with other crewmembers on Thursday when their boat was stopped by a Venezuelan navy vessel and ordered to sail under escort to Margarita Island.
Guyana said the crew was well within its territorial waters, but that Venezuela’s navy informed them they were operating in its exclusive economic zone and ordered an immediate halt to the survey.
“It was then clear that the vessel and its crew were not only being escorted out of Guyana’s waters, but were under arrest,” the Guyanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Friday in which it demanded the immediate release of the vessel and its crew. “These actions by the Venezuelan naval vessel are unprecedented in Guyana-Venezuela relations.”
Texas-based Anadarko said it was working with the governments of Guyana and the US to secure the release of the crew and the vessel, which was expected to arrive yesterday at Margarita Island off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. The US Department of State is aware of the situation, but has so far declined to comment.
Venezuela has for decades claimed two-thirds of Guyana’s territory as its own, arguing that the gold-rich region west of the Essequibo River was stolen from it by an 1899 agreement with Britain and its then-colony.
The area is approximately the size of the US state of Georgia and a fixture in 19th-century maps of Gran Colombia, the short-lived republic revered by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
More recently, ties between the two countries have improved, with Chavez’s successor, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, making his first visit as president to Georgetown in August to discuss joint oil projects with his counterpart, Guyanese President Donald Ramotar.
The Panamanian-flagged ship, the Teknik Perdana, was operating in what is known as the Roraima concession block, an area of the Atlantic Ocean off Guyana and Venezuela that has drawn increased exploration.
The ministry said that it had requested a meeting with Venezuelan officials next week to discuss the latest developments, which threaten to scare away much-needed foreign investment from the country.
Opposition groups in Guyana are urging a strong response, while the country’s main business group said it is time for the UN to get involved to help settle the long-running territorial feud once and for all.
Venezuela said it legitimately detained the vessel for operating without authorization in its waters.
“We will jealously defend our country and our sovereignty,” Venezuelan Minister of Oil Rafael Ramirez said when asked about the incident at a news conference in Caracas on Friday.
Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen said the company had received a concession from Guyana to explore the area off the country’s northern coast.
The total number of crew members on the vessel was not available, but there were at least five US citizens, including Anadarko contractors and employees of TDI Brooks International, a company based in College Station, Texas, which was contracted to do the acoustic survey of the ocean floor.
TDI director of operations Peter Tatro said the company is in contact with its employees.
Guyana said the vessel was collecting seismic data and that there was “ample time” to discuss any differences over the region with Venezuela since the actual exploration work had not yet started.