GEORGETOWN, Guyana — A ship carrying five American oil workers is expected to touch shore in the coming hours after Venezuela intercepted the U.S.-chartered vessel in disputed waters off the coast of Guyana, a move that threatens to revive a decades-old territorial dispute between South America's biggest oil producer and one of the region's poorest nations.
The 285-foot survey research vessel, sailing under a Panamanian flag, was conducting a seismic study under contract for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. on Thursday when it was detained by an armed Venezuelan navy vessel and ordered to sail under escort to Margarita Island, which is part of Venezuela. Guyana said the crew was well within its territorial waters but that the Venezuelan navy told them they were operating in that country's exclusive economic zone and ordered an immediate halt to the survey.
Texas-based Anadarko said it was working with the governments of Guyana and the U.S. to secure the release of the crew and the vessel, which it expects to arrive Sunday to Margarita Island off of Venezuela's Caribbean coast.
Guyana's government on Saturday requested a meeting with Venezuelan officials next week to discuss the latest developments, which threaten to scare away much-needed foreign investment from the country.
"It was then clear that the vessel and its crew were not only being escorted out of Guyana's waters, but were under arrest," the Guyanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday in which it demanded the immediate release of the vessel and its crew. "These actions by the Venezuelan naval vessel are unprecedented in Guyana-Venezuela relations."
U.S. State Department spokesman Noel Clay said authorities in Washington are aware of reports that five Americans are among the crew members detained by Venezuela, but that "due to privacy concerns, we cannot comment further at this time."
Venezuela has for decades claimed two-thirds of Guyana's territory as its own, arguing that the gold-rich region west of the Essequibo River was stolen from it by an 1899 agreement with Britain and its then colony. The area, roughly the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, is a fixture of 19th-century maps of Gran Colombia, the short-lived republic revered by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
More recently, ties between the two countries have improved, with Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, making his first visit as president to Georgetown in August to discuss joint oil projects with his Guyanese counterpart, Donald Ramotar. During the visit Maduro described the dispute as a relic of the colonial era and vowed to peacefully resolve the issue in accordance with international law.
On Saturday, Maduro spoke for almost five hours on national television and made no mention of the recent incident.
The Singapore-owned Teknik Perdana was operating in an area of the Atlantic off Guyana and Venezuela that that has drawn increased exploration interest in recent years.
Opposition groups in Guyana are urging a strong response while the country's main business group said it's time for the United Nations to get involved to help settle the long-running territorial feud once and for all.
Venezuela said it legitimately detained the vessel for operating without authorization in its waters.
"We will jealously defend our country and our sovereignty," Venezuelan oil minister Rafael Ramirez said when asked about the incident at a news conference in Caracas Friday.
John Christiansen, a spokesman for Anadarko, said the company had received a concession from Guyana to explore the area off the country's northern coast.
"Our sole focus remains on their safety and safe passage to their respective homes," he wrote in an email, adding that the boat was expected to arrive in Margarita on Sunday.
The total number of crew members was not available, but there were at least five U.S. citizens, including Anadarko contractors and employees of TDI Brooks International, a company based in College Station, Texas, which was contracted to do the acoustic survey of the ocean floor.
Peter Tatro, the director of operations for TDI, said the company is in contact with its employees.
"The people are fine. Our concern is just sort of what happens next," Tatro said. "We don't know what to expect when they arrive in Venezuela."
Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report from Miami. Goodman reported from Mexico City.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company