Venezuela escorts U.S.-chartered ship to port
GEORGETOWN, Guyana — A ship carrying five American oil workers was expected to touch shore late Saturday after Venezuela intercepted the U.S.-chartered vessel in disputed waters off the coast of Guyana — a move that threatens to revive a decades-old territorial dispute between South America's biggest oil producer and one of the region's poorest nations.
The 285-foot survey research vessel, sailing under a Panamanian flag, was conducting a seismic study under contract for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. on Thursday when it was detained by an armed Venezuelan navy vessel and ordered to sail under escort to Margarita Island, which is part of Venezuela. Guyana said the crew was well within its territorial waters, but that the Venezuelan navy told them they were operating in that country's exclusive economic zone and ordered an immediate halt to the survey.
“We will jealously defend our country and our sovereignty,” Rafael Ramirez, Venezuelan oil minister, said on Friday.
Texas-based Anadarko said it was working with the governments of Guyana and the United States to secure the release of the crew and the vessel, which it expects to arrive on Sunday at Margarita Island off Venezuela's Caribbean coast.
Guyana's government on Saturday requested a meeting with Venezuelan officials this week to discuss the latest developments, which threaten to scare away much-needed foreign investment from the country.
“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 Foreign Ministry said in a statement 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.”
State Department spokesman Noel Clay said authorities in Washington are aware of reports that five Americans are among the crew members detained by Venezuela, but that “due to privacy concerns, we cannot comment further at this time.”
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, roughly the size of the state of Georgia, is a fixture of 19th-century maps of Gran Colombia, the short-lived republic revered by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
More recently, ties between the two nations have improved, with Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, making his first visit as president to Georgetown in August to discuss joint oil projects with his Guyanese counterpart, Donald Ramotar. During the visit, Maduro described the dispute as a relic of the colonial era and vowed to peacefully resolve the issue.