The leaders of Guyana and Venezuela are set to meet face-to-face as regional partners urgently seek to defuse a long-running territorial dispute that escalated after Venezuelans voted in a referendum to claim two-thirds of their tiny neighbour.
Prompted by regional partners, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro agreed to meet at Argyle International Airport on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The prime ministers of Barbados, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago said they would also attend.
The meeting aims to ease tensions that have erupted over Essequibo, a vast border region rich in oil and minerals that represents a large part of Guyana’s territory but which Venezuela claims as its own.
The Venezuelan president followed the referendum by ordering his state-owned companies to explore and exploit oil, gas and mines in Essequibo. Both sides have put their military forces on alert.
It was not clear whether the session would lead to any agreements or even ease the controversy over the borders.
The President of Guyana has repeatedly said that the dispute needs to be resolved by the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands alone.
Venezuela insists that the Essequibo region was part of its territory during the Spanish colonial period, and says that the 1966 Geneva Agreement between its country, Britain and Guyana, the former colony of British Guiana, abolished the borders drawn by international arbitrators in 1899.
In a letter sent on Tuesday to Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana’s president said the Geneva Agreement stipulates that the International Court of Justice must settle any border dispute.
Ali also said he was concerned about what he described as “inaccurate assertions” contained in Maduro’s letter to Gonçalves.
He refuted Maduro’s description of the oil concessions granted by Guyana as being “in a maritime area whose boundaries have not yet been determined.” All the oil blocks are “well located within Guyanese waters under international law, including UNCLOS,” Ali said. “.
Ali also rejected what he said Maduro described as “interference in the United States Southern Command, which has begun operations in the disputed region.”
US Southern Command has conducted air operations inside Guyana in recent days.
“Any allegation of a military operation targeting Venezuela in any part of Guyanese territory is false, misleading and provocative,” Ali said in his letter to Gonsalves.
Maduro’s letter to Gonçalves reiterates Venezuela’s claim that the border drawn in 1899 was “the result of a scheme” between the US and the UK, and also said the dispute “should be resolved amicably in a matter acceptable to both parties.”
Maduro also pointed to the December 3 referendum on Venezuela’s claim to Essequibo, which has vast oil reserves off its coast.
The meeting between the two leaders was scheduled to last one day, although many expect the dispute to continue into next year.
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