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. (AP Photo/Juan Pablo Arraez)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Guyana’s president told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his 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 the vast Essequibo region, which Guyana considers its own.

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

“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 the brief phone interview. He noted that Guyana’s Defense Force also is speaking with counterparts in other countries but did not say which ones.

“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 United Kingdom, 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 a green light to enter the Essequibo region.

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

On Wednesday, the United Nations issued a statement highlighting the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice barring parties from any action that “might aggravate or extend the dispute or make it more difficult to resolve.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres “strongly supports the use of solely peaceful means to settle international disputes,” the world body said.

Venezuela’s government rejected the U.N.’s comments, saying it does not recognize the mandatory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

The diplomatic fight 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.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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