Turkmen’stan Protests to Azeris Over Caspian

ALMATY (Reuters) – Turkmen’stan has sent Caspian neighbor Azerbaijan a diplomatic note complaining of what it considers illegal Azeri activities in the Caspian Sea–the Turkmen foreign ministry said on Friday.

The note comes as tensions over the status of the sea–which contains huge reserves of oil and gas–are rising. Earlier this week an Iranian gunboat ordered two oil exploration ships licensed by Azerbaijan out of what it considered Iranian waters.

"Azerbaijan continues to carry out oil work–including exploration work–in disputed territories of the waters of the Caspian," the Turkmen foreign ministry said in a statement faxed to Reuters in Almaty.

"The Turkmen’side considers such activities by Azerbaijan as absolutely illegal and considers them as going against the interests of the other Caspian littoral states."

At issue are a number of potentially huge energy deposits in an inland sea which has not been formally divided between the five states surrounding it – Russia–Azerbaijan–Iran–Turkmen’stan and Kazakhstan.

The current status of the sea is governed by agreemen’s between Iran and the Soviet Union–when there were only two Caspian neighbors.

But while the five new neighbors disagree over how the Caspian should be divided–this has not stopped them from offering exploration and production blocks to foreign oil companies in what they consider their territorial waters.

"Having made declarations on the importance of reaching agreement on the fair division of the sea–the Azeri side nevertheless unilaterally and without consideration of the opinions and in breach of the rights of the other states–announces the priority of its rights over a number of fields in the Caspian and continues developing them," the Turkmen ministry said.

It singled out two fields–one called Osman in Turkmen and Chirag in Azeri–another called Khazar in Turkmen and Azeri by the Azeris–as fields which Baku was developing illegally.

The statement ended with a sharp warning:

"The foreign ministry of Turkmen’stan…calls on the Azeri side to stop…or the side breaching the norms of international law will be answerable for the consequences."

Rows over the status of the Caspian have bubbled over periodically since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and the three newly independent states with claims to parts of it sought to achieve economic growth through energy production.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov wants to host a summit of the five littoral states in his capital–Ashgabat–on October 26 and 27–to settle the question of dividing the sea.

His spokesman told Reuters earlier this month that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already agreed to attend. Niyazov plans to confirm details of the summit at an informal meeting of CIS heads of state in the Russian resort of Sochi next week.

Meanwhile–Iran on Friday praised a call by neighboring Azerbaijan to hold talks on a dispute in the energy-rich Caspian Sea after Iran ordered foreign ships out of an area it sees as Iranian territory.

"Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi…welcomed the statemen’s by Azeri President Haydar Aliyev to settle the Caspian Sea issue through peaceful negotiations," Iran’s news agency IRNA said.

Kharrazi said the two countries should consider the Caspian as "an area of friendship and peace," but added that Iran "would seriously protect its interests in the Caspian Sea," IRNA said.

In Baku–Aliyev’s press service said in a statement that the president met Iran’s ambassador on Thursday to discuss Monday’s incident–in which two survey vessels operated by British oil giant BP were ordered to retreat by an Iranian gunboat.

"They decided all issues with regard to the relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran’should be resolved through negotiation," the statement said.

Azerbaijan earlier protested to Iran over the incident. BP said it had suspended exploration in the area.

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