The United States announced joint military flight drills in Guyana on Thursday aswith neighbor Venezuela prompted the U.N. Security Council to call an urgent meeting.
A border feud has been spiraling over the Essequibo region, which has been administered and controlled by Guyana for more than a century, although Venezuela also claims the disputed area. Venezuela recently conducted a referendum, which it claims citizens supported, that aims to give Venezuela authority over the Essequibo region. Guyanese officials said in response that the country is preparing to defend itself and its borders in case of an invasion.
The spat is drawing in the international community, with the U.S. announcement of military exercises the latest sign that Washington is alarmed at the threat from the authoritarian leftist Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro.
“In collaboration with the Guyana Defense Force, the U.S. Southern Command will conduct flight operations within Guyana on December 7,” the U.S. Embassy in Guyana said in a statement.
It said the flights are part of “routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership” between the U.S. and Guyana, “and to strengthen regional cooperation.”
“The U.S. will continue its commitment as Guyana’s trusted security partner and promoting regional cooperation and interoperability,” the statement read.
Both U.S. and Guyanese officials have shared their hopes for a peaceful resolution with Venezuela. Guyana’s president, Irfaan Ali, told CBS News in a Tuesday interview that the country would prepare military assets with its allies to ready itself for “the worst case scenario,” but said he hopes the conflict does not come to that.
Guyana calls for diplomatic solution
“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 peace within this zone.”
The U.S. also called for peaceful diplomacy this week, with State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller saying in a statement, “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.”
In New York, the Security Council will meet behind closed doors Friday to discuss the tensions, according to an updated official schedule.
In a letter seen by AFP, Guyana’s Foreign Minister Hugh Todd asked the Security Council’s president to “call urgently for a meeting” to discuss “a grave matter that threatens international peace and security.”
Todd said Venezuela’s conduct “plainly constitutes a direct threat to Guyana’s peace and security, and more broadly threatens the peace and security of the entire region.”
In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also voiced “growing concern” about the tension on his country’s northern border, telling a summit of the Mercosur regional bloc that “if there’s one thing we don’t want here in South America it’s war.”
The Brazilian army said Wednesday it was reinforcing its presence in the northern cities of Pacaraima and Boa Vista, both of which share a border with Venezuela, as part of efforts “to guarantee the inviolability of the territory.”
Oil discoveries raised Venezuela-Guyana tensions
The long-running dispute over the Essequibo —which comprises some two-thirds of Guyanese territory— has intensified since ExxonMobil discovered oil there in 2015.
President Maduro upped the ante in recent days after claiming to have received overwhelming support in the referendum held Sunday on Essequibo’s fate.
Essequibo is home to 125,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 citizens.
Litigation is pending before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague over where the region’s borders should lie, but Venezuela does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction in the matter.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a phone call Wednesday with Guyanese President Ali, reaffirmed the United States’ “unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty” and called for a peaceful resolution.
Guyana, a former British and Dutch colony, insists the Essequibo frontiers were determined by an arbitration panel in 1899. But Venezuela claims the Essequibo River to the region’s east forms a natural border recognized as far back as 1777.
Caracas called a referendum after Guyana started auctioning off oil blocks in Essequibo in August.
Voters were asked to respond to five questions, including whether Venezuela should reject the 1899 arbitration decision as well as the ICJ’s jurisdiction.
They were also asked whether Venezuelan citizenship should be granted to the people, currently Guyanese, of a new “Guyana Esequiba” state.
Officials in Caracas said 95 percent of voters supported the measures.
On Tuesday, Maduro proposed a bill to create a Venezuelan province in Essequibo and ordered the state oil company to start issuing licenses for extracting crude in the region.
Emboldened the referendum result, the president also gave an ultimatum to oil companies working under concessions issued by Guyana to halt operations within three months.
Ali called Maduro’s statements a “direct threat” against his country.
On Wednesday, a Guyanese army helicopter with seven people on board was reported missing near the border, but an official said there was “no information to suggest that” Venezuela had been involved.
Venezuela on Wednesday also confirmed the arrest in October of an American citizen — Savoi Jadon Wright — on accusations of “conspiring” with ExxonMobil to stop the referendum.
Last week, two days before the referendum, the ICJ ordered Venezuela to “refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute.”
It did not, however, grant an urgent request by Guyana to stop the vote.