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Venezuela-Guyana tensions soar, US mounts military exercises
The United States announced joint military flight drills in Guyana on Thursday as soaring tensions over a contested oil-rich region with neighbor Venezuela prompted the UN Security Council to call an urgent meeting.
A border feud has been spiraling over the Essequibo region administered by Guyana for over a century but also claimed by Venezuela, which is now seeking to bring the area under its rule.
The spat is rapidly drawing in the international community, with the US announcement of military exercises the latest sign that Washington is alarmed at the threat from the authoritarian leftist Venezuelan government.
"In collaboration with the Guyana Defense Force, the US Southern Command will conduct flight operations within Guyana on December 7," the American embassy in Georgetown said in a statement.
It said the flights are part of "routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership" with Guyana.
In New York, the UN 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 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 Inacio Lula da Silva also voiced "growing concern" about the tension on his country's northern border, telling a summit of the Mercosur regional bloc: "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 as part of efforts "to guarantee the inviolability of the territory."
- 'A direct threat' -
The long-running dispute over Essequibo -- which comprises some two-thirds of Guyanese territory -- has intensified since ExxonMobil discovered oil there in 2015.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro upped the ante in recent days after claiming to have received overwhelming support in a 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.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone call Wednesday with Guyanese President Irfaan 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 issue 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.
Guyana's armed forces were on "alert," Ali added in a rare address to the nation late Tuesday, and were in contact with "partners" including the United States.
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 it had arrested an American citizen -- Savoi Jadon Wright -- on accusations of "conspiring" with ExxonMobil to stop the referendum. US media said the arrest happened on October 24.
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.