UK minister visits Guyana amid border dispute with Venezuela

LONDON (Reuters) – A junior British foreign minister on Monday said Guyana’s territorial integrity should be respected as he visited the Commonwealth country after neighbouring Venezuela renewed its claim to the oil-rich Essequibo region.

Guyana and Venezuela on Thursday agreed to avoid any use of force and to not escalate tensions in their long-running dispute over the 160,000-square-km (62,000-square-mile) region.

“I am in Guyana… to offer the UK’s unequivocal backing to our Guyanese friends,” Britain’s minister for the Americas and Caribbean David Rutley said in a statement, ahead of a meeting with Guyanese President Irfaan Ali for talks.

“The border issue has been settled for more than 120 years… We welcome the recent agreement by Venezuela… to refrain from the use of force and any further escalation.”

Essequibo is generally recognised as part of Guyana, but in recent years Venezuela has revived its claim to the territory and to offshore areas after major oil and gas discoveries.

Tensions rose sharply this month after voters in a Venezuelan referendum backed a move to make the Esequibo area a new Venezuelan state and rejected the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is hearing the case on the border dispute.

Rutley will also hold talks with ambassadors from the United States, France, Canada and the European Union over international support for the former British colony in the dispute.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Alex Richardson)