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The UK will deploy a naval patrol ship off Guyana in a show of support for the former British colony as it faces a territorial claim from its more powerful neighbour Venezuela.
The deployment follows moves by Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist president, to claim the vast, mineral-rich Essequibo region, which borders his country but has been part of Guyana for more than a century.
Britain’s decision to dispatch HMS Trent later this month is a significant show of support for the government in Guyana’s capital Georgetown.
It comes days after Lord David Cameron, foreign secretary, said the UK would “continue to work with partners in the region to ensure the territorial integrity of Guyana is upheld and prevent escalation”.
David Rutley, a UK foreign office minister, visited Guyana last week to meet President Irfaan Ali and stress the UK government’s “unequivocal backing” for Guyana’s territorial integrity after the Venezuelan claim.
Yván Gil, Venezuela’s foreign minister, responded angrily on social media platform X to that visit, saying: “The former invading and enslaving empire, which illegally occupied the territory of [Essequibo] and acted in an skilful and sneaky manner against the interests of Venezuela, insists on intervening in a territorial controversy that they themselves generated.
“This controversy will be resolved directly between the parties . . . We will stop the new filibustering that seeks to destabilise the region.”
Maduro held a referendum among Venezuelans earlier this month in which Caracas claimed that more than 95 per cent supported proposals including that Essequibo, which makes up two-thirds of Guyana, should become a Venezuelan state.
Caracas subsequently authorised Venezuelan state-run companies to grant licences for exploration and exploitation in Essequibo and ordered new official maps including the territory, although the presidents of both countries agreed in a December 15 meeting not to use force in the dispute.
HMS Trent, which is armed with a cannon and machine guns, has a crew of 65 and a contingent of Royal Marines, and can deploy Merlin helicopters.
The vessel, which is mostly used for counter-terrorism exercises and tackling piracy and smuggling, is usually based around the Mediterranean. However, in early December it was deployed west to Barbados to clamp down on drug runners in the Caribbean.
The ship would anchor off the coast of Georgetown and carry out visits, training and joint activities with the country’s navy, UK officials said.
Guyana’s defence force, with only 4,070 active personnel and reserves, is dwarfed by Venezuela’s 351,000-strong military.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “HMS Trent will visit regional ally and Commonwealth partner Guyana later this month as part of a series of engagements in the region during her Atlantic patrol task deployment.”
Guyana is a member of the Commonwealth and the only English-speaking nation in South America.