Turkmens Azeris Step Up War of Words Over Caspian

ASHGABAT–Turkmen’stan (Reuters)–Turkmen’stan and Azerbaijan–at odds over who owns what in the oil-rich Caspian Sea–traded new barbs on Monday and the Turkmen government threatened to seek international arbitration in the dispute.

Russia last week said such disputes showed the need for talks to decide the status of the sea–while the United States has stressed the need for stability in the region.

A Turkmen official–who took part in the latest round of talks that ended in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on Sunday–told Reuters the Azeri side was responsible for a lack of progress.

“The absence of compromise solutions at these talks stems from the actions and negotiating tactics of the Azeri delegation which is totally responsible for such a result,” he said.

Azeri Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov–who headed Baku’s team at the latest talks–said in Baku that “the fruitless negotiations” were due to “Turkmen’stan’s lack of objectivity.”

Abbasov said all his attempts to meet Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov had yielded no result.

At issue in the diplomatic row between the two ex-Soviet states are potentially huge energy deposits on the inland sea–which has not been formally divided between the states around it–Russia–Azerbaijan–Iran–Turkmen’stan and Kazakhstan.

Turkmen’stan and Azerbaijan are vying for two fields–one called Osman in Turkmen and Chirag in Azeri–another called Khazar in Turkmen and Azeri by the Azeris–which Ashgabat claims Baku has been developing illegally.

Exploration of the Altyn Asyr oil and gas structure–called by Azerbaijan Sharg–is another bone of contention.

“Ashgabat is categorically against any kind of activity on the oil and gas structures located in disputed parts of the Caspian shelf–before the sea has acquired clearly defined borders of national sectors,” Turkmen Deputy prime Minister Yelly Gurbanmuradov was quoted in a press release as saying.

The statement also quoted Turkmen Oil Industry and Mineral Resources Minister Kurbannazar Nazarov as saying that “Turkmen’stan would use all legitimate means to defend its interests–including international arbitration.”

The territorial dispute in the Caspian became more heated last week when an Iranian gunboat ordered two exploration ships licensed by Azerbaijan out of what it considered Iranian waters.

Abbasov said Ashgabat’s tough-worded diplomatic note to Baku last Friday and Tehran’s act of gunboat diplomacy represented a well-orchestrated action against Azerbaijan.

Amid a diplomatic war of words–Western businesses appear to be sitting on the fence waiting for the outcome of the battle.

British oil major BP said on Monday it was too early to say when it might resume exploration in a disputed Caspian sector–following last week’s incident with an Iranian gunboat.

“It is far too early to say when exploration will resume–it is a matter for the Azeri and Iranian governmen’s to sort out as part of the big issue of Caspian demarcation,” said BP’s spokesman in Moscow–Peter Henshaw.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov wants to host a summit of all littoral states in his capital–Ashgabat–on October 26 and 27. Analysts say the idea of the summit may fall through if at least one country decides not to take part in the meeting.

The United States has targeted the Caspian as one area in which it would like to build influence.

National Security Adviser Condeleezza Rice said during a visit to Moscow last week that the region needed stability and criticized Iran for the gunboat incident. Russia has also expressed concern–calling for talks to smooth things over and finally to decide the status of the sea.

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