CARACAS Venezuela and Guyana will meet on Thursday to resolve the fate of a ship and crew hired by a U.S. oil exploration firm that Venezuela seized in waters disputed for more than a century by the South American neighbors.
The foreign ministers of both countries have spoken on the phone and will meet in Trinidad and Tobago "in the hope of resolving diplomatically whatever difference exists between both sides," a Venezuelan government statement said.
A senior Guyanese official, who asked not to be named, confirmed the meeting. He said there were about two dozen workers on board from eight countries: the United States, Russia, France, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, Panama and Ukraine.
Venezuela's navy on Thursday seized the RV Teknik Perdana survey boat, which was being used by Texas-based Anadarko. Venezuela said the ship had violated its waters. Guyana says the boat was well within its territory and Venezuela's action has threatened its national security.
The boat has been taken to the Venezuelan island of Margarita. Its Ukrainian captain Igor Bekirov was due to appear in court shortly to face charges of violating Venezuelan waters, local judicial authorities said.
Anadarko said the crew was safe but referred additional questions to Guyana officials.
"We continue to cooperate fully with the relevant authorities, with the sole focus of achieving a safe release of the entire crew and the vessel," Anadarko said in an email.
Oil exploration has fanned the flames of the old territorial dispute, and the incident did not appear linked to the socialist Venezuelan government's antipathy toward Washington.
The United States and Venezuela have just expelled the others' top diplomats.
A U.S. embassy official said Washington was aware of reports that five Americans were on the ship, but would not give any further comment or details due to "privacy concerns."
Guyana awarded Anadarko Petroleum a deep-water, exploration license in June last year for a block named Roraima, although details of the concession have not been revealed.
Oil companies have been increasingly interested in the northeastern shoulder of South America since a discovery off nearby French Guyana in 2011 that industry experts described as a game-changer for the region's energy prospects.
Venezuela and Guyana have long argued about the status of the disputed Essequibo region, an area on the border about the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, and over rights to the ocean resources that lie offshore. Venezuela calls it a "reclamation zone," but in practice it functions as Guyanese territory.
Critics of President Nicolas Maduro, who replaced the late Hugo Chavez as Venezuela's leader after winning an election earlier this year, say he is exploiting international incidents to try and distract attention from domestic woes.
Guyana's former foreign minister, Rashleigh Jackson, urged a quick release of the ship and crew after Thursday's talks, then further negotiations to settle the maritime territorial limits.
"What is needed in these talks is a decision on a mechanism to settle the maritime boundary once and for all," he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Neil Marks in Georgetown and Eileen O'Grady in Houston; Editing by Eyanir Chinea and Lisa Shumaker)