Venezuela called on Guyana Thursday to reject outside interference in their simmering dispute over the oil-rich Essequibo region, as the two sides met in a new bid to de-escalate tensions.
The comment came after the countries' territorial dispute escalated last month when the US held joint military exercises with Guyana and Britain sent a warship to Guyanese waters, prompting Venezuela to launch a "defensive" military deployment.
"Let us flatly reject the possibility of third parties interfering in or benefiting from any debate or dispute between Guyana and Venezuela," Foreign Minister Yvan Gil told his Guyanese counterpart, Hugh Hilton Todd, as the pair held talks in Brazil.
Gil said the talks had been a "very frank discussion," and called for a "roadmap" to resolve the crisis.
The meeting was the first high-level sit-down on the disputed region since Presidents Irfaan Ali and Nicolas Maduro held a crisis summit in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines last month.
Todd reiterated Guyana's position that the dispute is for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve -- a venue Venezuela has rejected.
"Guyana remains committed to resolving the controversy... in a very peaceful manner," he said after the talks, which were mediated by Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira.
"Today's event is to actually flesh out those areas where we have commonality... and mutual interests," he added, citing trade, migration and the environment.
- Oil bonanza -
The crisis has triggered international concern over a potential military conflict in relatively peaceful South America, though Ali and Maduro agreed at their meeting on December 14 not to resort to force.
Essequibo has been administered by Guyana for more than a century and is the subject of border litigation before the International Court of Justice in The Hague -- whose jurisdiction in the matter Venezuela rejects.
The region makes up about two-thirds of Guyanese territory, and is home to 125,000 of Guyana's 800,000 citizens. But Caracas has long claimed the territory.
The row was revived in 2015 when US energy giant ExxonMobil discovered huge crude reserves in Essequibo, and reached fever pitch last year after Guyana started auctioning off oil blocks in the region.
Maduro's government then called a controversial non-binding referendum that overwhelmingly approved the creation of a Venezuelan province in Essequibo, according to official results.
That sparked fears of a military conflict -- heightened by the US and British military moves in Guyana and Venezuela's 5,600-troop deployment.
Venezuela's hackles were also raised by a January 9 visit to Guyana by a senior US official, Daniel Erikson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western hemisphere, to discuss "regional security."
- 'We believe in diplomacy' -
President Ali told AFP ahead of the meeting that it was an important step towards fulfilling the December agreement, which foresees the creation of a commission "to look at all the consequential matters."
"It gives us now the opportunity to outline the agenda with items that both sides would want to speak on... issues of trade, climate, energy security," the president said.
For his part, Maduro said last month: "We believe in diplomacy, dialogue and peace."
Venezuela claims Essequibo has historically been considered part of its territory since 1777, when it was part of the Spanish empire, with the Essequibo River forming a natural boundary.
However, Guyana, a former British and Dutch colony, says the border was ratified in 1899 by an arbitration court in Paris.