Somalia challenges Kenya over oil blocks

Fri Jul 6, 2012 10:14am EDT

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By Kelly Gilblom

NAIROBI, July 6 (Reuters) - Somalia's government accused Kenya on Friday of awarding offshore oil and gas exploration blocks illegally to multinationals Total and Eni because the concessions lie in waters claimed by Somalia.

The spat between Kenya and its war-ruined neighbour could complicate the hunt for resources along a part of the East African coastline, rapidly emerging as one of the world's hottest oil exploration prospects.

Somalia's deputy energy minister, Abdullahi Dool, said contracts awarded for four blocks in deep waters were invalid and the government planned to complain to the United Nations, which oversees maritime border laws.

"We are concerned about the lease of blocks," Dool told Reuters. "I am sure we will lodge complaints."

The blocks are among seven awarded by Kenya last week, three of them to Italy's Eni and one to France's Total .

They lie in an area long contested by Kenya, East Africa's biggest economy, and Somalia, wrecked by more than two decades of civil war, split between an interim government and Islamist rebels and serving as the main base for Indian Ocean pirates.

Kenya rejected the accusation that ownership of the blocks was contested and said there was no need to hold up exploration.

Kenya's first major oil discovery in March has raised expectations of more to come.

"Saying these are not Kenyan blocks is like saying we don't have a full-fledged government, like we are a banana republic," petroleum commissioner Martin Heya said.

An Eni spokesman said the company would not comment on the challenge to its rights to blocks L21, L23 and L24. Total, awarded block 122, did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenya says the maritime boundary, over which there is no formal agreement, should run due east from the point at which the land border meets the coast, like the maritime boundaries of other countries along the coast.

Somalia says the boundary should extend perpendicular to the coastline, giving it a big chunk of the waters claimed by Kenya.

The dispute mirrors those in other parts of Africa where resources straddle boundaries that were first drawn only vaguely by colonial era map makers.

Kenya and Somalia signed a memorandum of understanding in 2009 that the border would run east along the line of latitude, but Somalia, which has lacked an effective central government since 1991, then rejected the agreement in parliament.

The quarrel over the oil blocks strains otherwise close ties between Kenya and the Somali government. In fact, Kenya sent troops into Somalia last year to hunt down the Islamist al Shabaab rebels who control swathes of the country.

Joshua Brien, a legal adviser with the Commonwealth Secretariat who is advising Kenya on the matter, said no legal boundary can be established until both governments sign a U.N.-approved agreement or move the issue to an international court.

"It's not impossible they could come to a resolution, but the situation in Somalia is so uncertain," Brien told Reuters by phone from London.

An added frustration for Kenya is that it cannot extend its claim to the continental shelf beyond its 200 nautical miles (370 km) of territorial waters until the border spat is resolved. That holds up the award of more exploration licenses. (Editing by Richard Lough and Matthew Tostevin)

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