Venezuela frees crew of two seized Guyana boats

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Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, pictured in December 2020, said that 12 Guyanese citizens detained by his country had been released

Caracas on Wednesday announced the release of the crew of two Guyana fishing boats that the Venezuelan military had seized last month in waters contested by both countries.

"Yesterday, the 12 Guyanese citizens detained on January 23 were released," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said in a statement.

He did not specify whether the boats would be returned.

The boats' seizure is the latest episode in a century-old territorial dispute between the two South American countries that has heated up since US oil giant ExxonMobil discovered crude oil in the region in 2015.

Caracas said its navy caught the vessels "red handed" fishing illegally in Venezuelan waters, a claim rejected by its smaller neighbor Guyana, which maintained the boats were unlawfully seized in its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In December, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro decreed "a new marine territory" that, according to Guyana, extends into its marine and land territory west of the Essequibo River.

Guyana condemned the decree as a violation of its sovereignty and of the fundamental rules of international law, and maintains valid borders were set in 1899 -- while Venezuela says a 1966 treaty nullified that earlier agreement.

Guyana has asked the International Court of Justice to rule on the matter, but Venezuela has said the ICJ has no jurisdiction and will not participate.