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British warship arrives in Guyana as tensions escalate with Venezuela

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A British warship arrived in Guyana Friday afternoon amid growing tensions over border dispute between the former British colony and Venezuela.

HMS Trent’s visit allowed Venezuela to begin military exercises a day earlier in the eastern Caribbean, near its border with Guyana, as The Venezuelan government maintains its claims to a vast band of its smaller neighbor.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry expressed concern about the situation on Friday and urged the two South American countries to resume dialogue. He said other countries should avoid “military activities” that support either side.

Brazil’s statement calls on Guyana and Venezuela to remain faithful to the Argyle Declaration, an agreement signed earlier this month in which their leaders said they would resolve the border dispute through non-violent means.

The dispute centers on Essequibo, a sparsely populated region the size of Florida and rich in oil and minerals. Venezuela has long claimed it was expelled from the territory when Europeans and the United States established the border.

The British Ministry of Defense said the ship was traveling to Guyana as part of a series of engagements in the region and would conduct training exercises with the Guyana military.

On its X account, formerly Twitter, the ship posted photos of sailors welcoming the British Ambassador to Guyana and the Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defense Force, Brig. General Omar Khan. They were welcomed at an official lunch and were able to tour the ship’s capabilities.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Khan said such operations “remain an important part of the spectrum of regional security activities.” This has been the case in the past and will continue to do so in the future. »

FILE – The Essequibo River flows through Guyana’s Kurupukari Pass, November 19, 2023. Venezuela has long claimed Guyana’s Essequibo region, a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals. On Sunday, December 10, Guyana’s government, under pressure from neighboring Brazil and a Caribbean trade bloc, agreed to join bilateral negotiations with Venezuela over a growing territorial dispute. (AP Photo/Juan Pablo Arraez, file)

Officials remained discreet about the nature of the exercises.

The warship is typically used to intercept pirates and drug traffickers, and it recently conducted joint exercises with the navies of several West African countries. It is equipped with cannons and a landing pad for helicopters and drones and can transport around fifty marines.

In a statement Thursday evening, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said Venezuela “has nothing to fear” from the ship’s activities in Guyanese waters.

“Guyana has long engaged in partnerships with regional and international states aimed at strengthening internal security,” Ali said. “These partnerships do not pose a threat to anyone and are in no way intended to be aggressive. »

National Assembly Speaker Jorge Rodriguez, left, and Chairman of the Special Commission for the Defense of Guyana Essequibo Hermann Escara, shake hands after unveiling the new map of Venezuela which includes the territory of Essequibo, a strip of land administered and controlled by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, December 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

National Assembly Speaker Jorge Rodriguez, left, and Chairman of the Special Commission for the Defense of Guyana Essequibo Hermann Escara, shake hands after unveiling the new map of Venezuela which includes the territory of Essequibo, a strip of land administered and controlled by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, December 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

But Venezuela began military exercises involving 5,000 troops in the eastern Caribbean on Thursday, citing the British patrol boat’s visit.

In a nationally televised address, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused Guyana of betraying the spirit of the Argyle Declaration.

“We will not let anyone push us around,” Maduro said, surrounded by military commanders. He described Britain’s decision to send a warship as a threat from an “old, decaying empire.”

Guyana has controlled Essequibo for decades, but Venezuela has revived its historic claims to the region earlier this month by a referendum in which voters were asked whether the territory should become a Venezuelan state.

Maduro’s critics say the socialist leader reignited the border conflict to draw attention to the country’s internal problems as Venezuela prepares for a presidential election next year. Maduro intends to run for a third term.

Venezuela claims it was the victim of a land theft plot in 1899, when Guyana was a British colony and British, Russian and American arbiters determined the border.

Venezuelan officials also say that an agreement signed in 1966 between Venezuela, Britain and British Guiana to resolve the dispute had effectively canceled the original arbitration.

Guyana maintains the original agreement is legal and binding and in 2018 asked the United Nations’ highest court to rule it as such, but the decision will take years.

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Associated Press reporter Bert Wilkinson in Georgetown, Guyana, contributed to this report.

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