The United States says it is fully backing Guyana against Venezuela’s threat to annex its oil-rich western territory as tensions soar over their border dispute.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed Washington’s position that Guyana has full sovereignty over its 159,500sq km (61,600sq-mile) Essequibo region, in a call with Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali late on Wednesday.
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During the call, Blinken also urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the US State Department said.
Venezuelans on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to annex oil-rich Essequibo, which their government claims forms a natural part of Venezuelan territory and was unfairly delegated to Guyana more than a century ago.
“We would like the United Nations Security Council to issue a very strong statement to Venezuela in relation to Venezuela breaching the order of the ICJ [International Court of Justice] – an order that can be enforceable,” Ali told Al Jazeera in an interview.
“And we would like to see the full commitment of the United Nations Security Council to ensure that they do everything to have this region remain a region of peace and stability,” he added.
Sunday’s vote was held despite the ICJ warning Venezuela against “taking any action” that could alter the region’s status quo.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday called for a bill to create a “Guyana Esequiba” province and ordered Venezuelan companies to prepare to enter the territory to explore for fossil fuels and minerals “immediately”.
Guyana’s president has said the country will do whatever it must to stave off the annexation threat, putting the armed forces on “alert”.
Guyana has also turned to regional allies for muscle, with Brazil sending troops to its northern border with Venezuela.
“We take this threat very seriously, and we have initiated a number of precautionary measures to ensure the peace and stability of this region,” Ali said on Wednesday.
“Should Venezuela proceed to act in this reckless and adventurous manner, the region will have to respond,” he said. “And that is what we’re building. We’re building a regional response.”
But even as tensions simmer, Guyana and Venezuela have agreed to “keep communication channels open”, the Caracas government said.
Venezuela has for decades laid claim to Essequibo, claiming that the Essequibo River to the region’s east forms a natural border and has historically been recognised as such.
However, Guyana, of which Essequibo makes up more than two-thirds and hosts 125,000 of its 800,000 citizens, has administered the territory since the frontiers were determined by an arbitration panel in 1899.
With these resources, the country is set to surpass the oil production of Venezuela, and by 2025, according to projections, the country is on track to become the world’s largest per-capita crude producer.
Venezuela’s interest in the territory piqued in 2015 when ExxonMobil announced it had found oil in commercial quantities off the Essequibo coast.