GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — Guyana's government stepped up pressure on Venezuela to explain why it intercepted an American-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 the region's poorest nations.
The 285-foot survey research vessel, carrying five American oil workers, was conducting a seismic study under contract for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. on Thursday when it 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 the Venezuelan navy informed them they were operating in that country's 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 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."
Texas-based Anadarko said it was working with the governments of Guyana and the U.S. to secure the release of the crew and the vessel, which was expected to arrive today to Margarita Island off of Venezuela's Caribbean coast. The U.S. State Department 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, roughly the size of the U.S. 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 countries 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. The Panamanian-flagged ship, the Teknik Perdana, was operating in what is known as the Roraima concession block, an area of the Atlantic off Guyana and Venezuela that that has drawn increased exploration interest in recent years.
Guyana's Foreign 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's time for the United Nations 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 oil minister Rafael Ramirez said when asked about the incident at a news conference in Caracas Friday.
John Christiansen, a spokesman for Anadarko, 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 was not available, but there were at least five U.S. 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.
Peter Tatro, the director of operations for TDI, said the company is in contact with its employees.
"The people are fine. Our concern is just sort of what happens next," Tatro said. "We don't know what to expect when they arrive in Venezuela."
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.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report from Miami. Goodman reported from Mexico City.