SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva warned on Thursday that the resurrection of a U.S. naval fleet in Latin America may signal that Washington covets huge new oil reserves off Brazil's coast.
The U.S. Navy is reestablishing the U.S. Fourth Fleet, which was decommissioned 58 years ago, to combat drug trafficking, provide disaster relief and help with peacekeeping missions in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But the return of the fleet has been met with widespread skepticism in Brazil and elsewhere in the region, where many see a U.S. military presence as a threat to sovereignty.
"The (Brazilian) Navy plays an important role in protecting our subsalt reserves, because the men of Fourth Fleet are almost there on top of the subsalt areas," Lula said in a speech inaugurating a new oil platform in southern Brazil.
"Our Navy has to be the guardian of our offshore oil platforms to protect our patrimony, because before you know it some wise guy will come along and say: 'This is mine, it's at the bottom of the ocean anyway, so it's mine.'"
Since state-run energy company Petrobras surprised the oil world last November by announcing the world's second-biggest oil find in 20 years, conspiracy theories have abounded in Brazil that a foreign power might try to snatch the country's offshore oil wealth.
U.S. officials have tried to assuage those concerns, stressing that the Fourth Fleet will not be an offensive force and that it will respect Brazil's maritime claims.
Just last week, Brazil deployed warships, fighter jets and thousands of troops off its southern coast, starting two weeks of military maneuvers aimed at showing the world it can defend its newfound oil wealth.
Brazil is also negotiating a strategic defense alliance with France that would include the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine to patrol its oil-rich waters.
Reporting by Todd Benson; Editing by Eric Walsh