A British warship arrived in Guyana on Friday afternoon amid rising tensions from a border dispute between the former British colony and Venezuela.
The dispute is over Essequibo, a sparsely populated region that is the size of Florida and rich in oil and minerals. Venezuela has long claimed it was cheated out of the territory when Europeans and the U.S. set the border.
The UK’s defense ministry has said that the ship is visiting Guyana as part of a series of engagements in the region and that the vessel will conduct training exercises with Guyana’s military.
On its X account, the ship posted photos of sailors welcoming Britain’s ambassador to Guyana and the chief of staff of Guyana’s Defense Force, Brig. Gen. Omar Khan. They were hosted at a formal lunch and provided with a tour of the ship’s capabilities.
The warship is generally used to intercept pirates and drug smugglers, and it recently conducted joint exercises with the navies of several West African nations. It is equipped with cannons and a landing pad for helicopters and drones and can carry around 50 marines.
In a statement late Thursday, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said Venezuela “had nothing to fear” from the ship’s activities in Guyanese waters.
“Guyana has long been engaged in partnerships with regional and international states aimed at enhancing internal security,” Ali said. “These partnerships pose a threat to no one and are in no way intended to be aggressive.”
But Venezuela on Thursday began military exercises involving 5,000 troops in the eastern Caribbean, citing the visit by the British patrol ship.
In a nationally televised speech, 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 a “decaying former empire.”
Guyana has controlled Essequibo for decades, but Venezuela revived its historical claim to the region earlier this month through a referendum in which voters were asked whether the territory should be turned into a Venezuelan state.
Critics of Maduro say the socialist leader has reignited the border dispute to draw attention from the nation’s internal problems as Venezuela prepares for a presidential election next year. Maduro intends to run for a third term.
Venezuela says it was the victim of a land theft conspiracy in 1899, when Guyana was a British colony and arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States decided the boundary.
Venezuelan officials also argue that an agreement among Venezuela, Britain and the then colony of British Guiana signed in 1966 to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.
Guyana maintains the initial accord is legal and binding and asked the United Nations’ top court in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away.
By Mian Saeed Ahmed Khan