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Guyana condemns Venezuela for signing into law a referendum approving annexation of disputed region

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's move to sign into law the results of a recent referendum laying claim to two-thirds of Guyana triggered fierce condemnation Thursday from the neighboring South American country's government.

The text of the law was not immediately made public. Even so, Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs vowed not to yield any land to Venezuela and called the move targeting Guyana’s western Essequibo region an “egregious violation of the most fundamental principles of international law.”

In early December, Maduro held a referendum to claim sovereignty over the oil- and mineral-rich region that represents two-thirds of Guyana, arguing it was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. On Wednesday, Maduro held a signing ceremony recalling the referendum as a “stellar and historic moment.”

“The decision of December 3, has now become the Law of the Republic, to form part of the legal structure of the internal political and institutional movement of our country,” Maduro tweeted on Wednesday. "The decision made by the Venezuelans in the consultative referendum will be fulfilled in all its parts, and with this Law, we will continue the defense of Venezuela on international stages."

Guyana's government responded sharply hours later: “If Venezuela wants to contest title to the territory in question, the proper forum is the International Court of Justice."

It's not clear how Venezuelan authorities intend to implement the idea of ​​exercising jurisdiction over Essequibo. Maduro said that until the dispute is resolved, the appointment of an Essequibo governor will remain in his hands and that the National Assembly will exercise legislative powers of the territory. He did not provide further details.

Guyana and Venezuela have been feuding over the region for decades, with tensions deepening after vast oil deposits were found near Guyana’s coast in 2015 in offshore areas intersecting the disputed territory.

In 2018, Guyana took the case to the United Nations’ highest court, asking judges to rule that an 1899 border decision is valid and binding. Meanwhile, Venezuela insists that a 1966 agreement nullified the original arbitration.

A court ruling is not expected before next year.

Meanwhile, Guyana is collaborating with the U.S., France and India to fortify its military in the event of any annexation attempts, President Irfaan Ali said recently. Guyana’s military also has stepped up recruitment exercises with advertisements on social media sites and visits to various regions around the country.

Satellite imagery has revealed that Venezuela’s military is amassing troops and expanding bases near the border it shares with Guyana.

The presidents of Guyana and Venezuela met in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent in mid-December at the urging of regional leaders who have tried to diffuse the situation, but they failed to resolve the territorial dispute, agreeing only to not use threats or force against each other.

A second meeting between Ali and Maduro was supposed to been held last month, but not date has been scheduled.