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Guyana is preparing to defend borders as Venezuela tries to claim oil-rich disputed region, president says

Venezuela, Guyana disputing oil-rich land
Guyanese president speaks out after Venezuela makes claim on oil-rich region of his country 06:54

Guyana's President Irfaan Ali said the country is taking every necessary step to protect itself from Venezuela, which has ordered its state-owned companies to explore and exploit oil and minerals in Guyana's vast and resource-rich Essequibo region that it considers its own, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. Ali shared similar sentiments in a Tuesday interview with CBS News, explaining that Guyana is preparing to defend the borders with Venezuela so they remain as they are.

When asked if he has requested military assistance, Ali said his government is reaching out to allies and regional partners, some of which Guyana has defense agreements with, to protect the Essequibo region, which makes up two-thirds of the country.

"Our first line of defense is diplomacy," Ali told CBS News, adding that Guyana has reached out to leaders abroad, including in the U.S., India and Cuba, hoping that "they can encourage Venezuela to do what is right, and ensure that they do not act in a reckless or adventurous manner that could disrupt the pace within this zone."

"But we are also preparing for the worst case scenario ... We are preparing with our allies, with our friends, to ensure that we are in a position to defend what is ours," he said. Although Ali noted that Guyana will prepare its military assets in case of a Venezuelan invasion, he also reiterated, "We want this to be resolved in a peaceful manner."

Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, echoed the president's hope for peace in a statement, saying, "We would urge Venezuela and Guyana to continue to seek a peaceful resolution of their dispute. This is not something that will be settled by a referendum."

Venezuela has claimed its citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum that aims to give Venezuela authority over the Essequibo region in Guyana. It is part of a long-running border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana.

Guyana Venezuela Territory Dispute
The Essequibo River flows through Kurupukari crossing in Guyana, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2023. Venezuela has long claimed Guyana's Essequibo region, a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals. Juan Pablo Arraez / AP

"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 in a brief phone interview with the AP.

He noted that Guyana's Defense Force also is speaking with counterparts in other countries.

"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."

Ali spoke a day after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said he would "immediately" grant operating licenses for exploration and exploitation in Essequibo and ordered the creation of local subsidiaries of Venezuelan public companies, including oil giant PDVSA and mining conglomerate Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.

Venezuela has the world's largest proven oil reserves, but years of mismanagement and economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Maduro's government have hurt PDVSA and subsidiaries.

Maduro also announced the creation of a Comprehensive Defense Operational Zone for the territory in dispute. It would be similar to special military commands that operate in certain regions of Venezuela.

"The announcements by Venezuela are in full defiance of international law," Ali said. "And any country that so openly defies important international bodies should be of concern not only for Guyana but for all of the world." He said Venezuela's actions can severely disrupt the region's stability and peaceful coexistence.

Guyana expects to bring up the issue at Wednesday's U.N. Security Council meeting.

The president said in a statement late Tuesday that his administration has reached out to the U.S., neighboring Brazil, the U.K., France, the U.N. secretary general and the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Ali also accused Venezuela of defying a ruling that the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands issued last week. It ordered Venezuela not to take any action until the court rules on the countries' competing claims, a process expected to take years.

Venezuela's government condemned Ali's statement, accusing Guyana of acting irresponsibly and allegedly giving the U.S. Southern Command the green light to enter the Essequibo region.

Venezuela called on Guyana to resume dialogue and leave aside its "erratic, threatening and risky conduct."

The diplomatic row over the Essequibo region has flared over the years but intensified in 2015 after ExxonMobil announced it had found vast amounts of oil off its coast.

Venezuela insists the region belongs to it because Essequibo was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period. Venezuela rejects the border that international arbitrators drew in 1899, when Guyana was still under British rule.

The dispute escalated after Maduro held a referendum on Sunday in which Venezuelans approved his claim of sovereignty over Essequibo.

Ali called the referendum a "failure" and said Guyana is preparing for any eventuality.

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