Baku Says Iran Threatens Caspian Oil Ships

BAKU (Reuters)–Azerbaijan xpressed deep concern to Iran about an Iranian gunship and a military aircraft that threatened two oil exploration ships in what it claims to be the Azeri sector of the Caspian Sea.

Iran earlier said it complained to Azerbaijan about Baku’s activities in what it considered Iranian territory–and on July 24–a conservative Iranian newspaper called for Tehran to take a tough stance on the issue.

The Azeri state news agency reported that Prime Minister Artur Rasizade had sent a letter of protest to the Iranian ambassador in Azerbaijan over Monday’s incident.

"Iranian military aircraft flew over two Azeri oil ships and after that an Iranian military ship approached one of the exploration ships and ordered it to retreat five miles to the north,” the Azeri news agency quoted the letter as saying.

British oil giant BP (BP.L) said it was operating the survey vessels and said it had suspended exploration work in that area of the sea around its Araz-Alov-Sharg oil concession. Iran calls the same block Alborz.

"Yesterday at 10 pm–two BP survey ships were approached by an Iranian military vessel and were ordered to leave,” BP spokeswoman Tamam Bayatley told Reuters. "The decision to leave was taken in the best interests of the safety of the vessels and the crew.”

Senior Iranian oil official Hossein Kazempour Ardebili warned other Caspian bordering states and international firms of consequences” if they persisted in exploring disputed areas.

"Unfortunately–Azerbaijan has contracted out certain regions in our 20 percent of the Caspian for oil exploration and development,” said Kazempour–who is in charge of the oil ministry’s international affairs.

"We have communicated our position both to the Caspian littoral states and to foreign companies in the past two years and warned them against consequences,” he said on television. "We have done this with BP and they will have to accept the consequences."

The official news agency IRNA said on Monday the oil ministry warned foreign firms that contracts signed with other states in the Iranian sector were invalid–adding that a senior official had asked Britain’s envoy in Tehran to convey Iran’s position to BP.

The Iranian daily newspaper–Abrar–said on Tuesday the Islamic Republic should take a tough stance against what it described as "unlawful" activities in Iranian Caspian waters.

"The action must be of such nature that once and for all the regime in Baku stops reaching out its hands for our territory," the newspaper reported.

The division of the Caspian between the five littoral states remains unresolved despite protracted talks.

Iran has said the states should decide jointly on the Caspian’s energy riches or has demanded a 20 percent share of resources.

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