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Arrival of British warship in Guyana waters escalates tensions with Venezuela

The UK’s Royal Navy patrol vessel HMS Trent (file photo)

A persisting territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the oil-rich Essequibo region has escalated as a British warship provocatively just arrived in Guyana waters.

The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy patrol vessel HMS Trent arrived in Guyana waters on Friday as London justified the move “as part of a series of engagements in the region during her Atlantic patrol task deployment.”

The disputed region has been controlled by Guyana, a former British and Dutch colony, for more than a century, but Venezuela also claims sovereignty over it which comprises some two-thirds of Guyanese territory.

The 160,000 square km (61,776 square miles) territory around the Esequibo River has found significance in recent years, after the discovery of offshore oil and gas by US energy company ExxonMobil. The maritime border between the two countries is also in dispute.

Caracas has already launched a major military exercise in response to what it termed an “unacceptable” threat.

A day prior to the arrival of the British warship, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in response to Britain’s provocative decision to show of support to its former colony, ordered more than 5,600 troops to join what he called a “defensive” exercise in the vicinity of the Guyana border.

Maduro said on Thursday that the deployment of the British warship breaches the “spirit” of an agreement reached between the South American neighbors earlier this month, during a meeting between Maduro and Guyana President Irfaan Ali, to avoid the use of force and avoid increasing tensions in the dispute.

On Friday, Britain criticized the drills, saying they were “unjustified and should cease.”

This is while an unnamed Guyana foreign ministry source told AFP that the arrival of the British warship in Guyana’s waters was “uneventful.”

On December 3, Maduro’s government held a referendum in which 95 percent of voters, according to officials, supported declaring Venezuela the rightful owner of Essequibo.

The Venezuelan president has already carried out legal maneuvers to create a Venezuelan province in the disputed region, ordering the state oil company - PDVSA - to issue licenses for extracting crude in the region.

Caracas claims the Essequibo River to the region’s east forms a natural border recognized as far back as 1777. Essequibo is home to 125,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 citizens.

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