Turkmens Warn Azeris Over Disputed Caspian Oil

ASHGABAT (Reuters)–A Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister issued a stark warning to Caspian neighbor Azerbaijan on Wednesday that an offshore oil field which the Azeri state oil company seeks to develop has nothing to do with Azerbaijan.

The warning comes as a dispute between the two former Soviet states intensifies over who owns what in the sea. It also follows a recent incident in which an Iranian gunboat ordered an oil exploration ship licensed by Azerbaijan out of what it considers its section of the oil-rich sea.

"The opening by specialists from (Azeri state oil company) SOCAR of the so-called prospective Geigel structure–situated according to Baku in the southern Kyapaz field–is not a matter for discussion and has nothing whatsoever to do with Azerbaijan," Yelly Kurbanmuradov told Reuters in an interview.

"The area is just 100 km (62 miles) from Turkmen’stan’s Caspian coast–and is 210 km from Azerbaijan," he said.

The Turkmens call the field Serdar instead of Kyapaz and–Kurbanmuradov said–"beyond the slightest doubt it is Turkmen."

The Caspian is surrounded by five countries – Russia–Iran and Kazakhstan as well as Azerbaijan and Turkmen’stan – and all of them want a share of the sea’s huge mineral wealth.

But the agreemen’s on its status date from a Soviet era treaty when just two states–the Soviet Union and Iran–shared the sea. An Iranian deputy foreign minister is currently in Moscow for talks.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has invited the heads of state of all five littoral countries to a summit in Ashgabat in October to try and hammer out a deal on the sea. But meanwhile disputes are becoming more frequent.

In late July Ashgabat sent Baku a strongly worded protest note over Azerbaijan’s claims to some fields. Azeri President Heydar Aliyev replied that Ashgabat was demonstrating "ambitions which do not correspond to international legal norms."

A senior Iranian official said on Wednesday that a solution on how to carve up the riches of the Caspian Sea–which has sparked tensions in recent weeks–needed flexibility by all five nations involved.

He said Iran’s position remained that each state should get 20 percent of the landlocked sea–but Tehran was ready for talks that would thrash out a solution on who owned how much of waters lying over billions of dollars of oil wealth under the seabed.

"The question of deciding the status of the Caspian Sea needs the consensus of the five littoral states and of course a flexible position is needed here from all those concerned," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Akhani told reporters.

He was speaking in Moscow after talks with Russia’s official for the Caspian–Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny.

Tensions have been running high in recent weeks over the sea–surrounded by Russia–Azerbaijan–Kazakhstan–Iran and Turkmen’stan.

Two weeks ago–an Iranian gunboat drove off an exploration vessel being used by geologists from oil major BP to prospect waters for Azerbaijan in a zone also claimed by Iran.

Turkemen’stan also later protested to Azerbaijan for exploring waters it claims too. A Turkmen deputy prime minister earlier on Wednesday reiterated warnings to the Azeris–saying the field belonged "beyond the slightest doubt" to Turkmen’stan.

Russia has said any use of force in the Caspian is unacceptable and all sides want to avoid making the sea a zone of conflict despite the lure of oil revenues.

"If all the interested sides show goodwill it is possible to find a way out of this situation," Akhani said.

Iran has insisted that treaties between the former Soviet Union and Teheran are still the only valid documen’s for deciding on the use of the sea.

Akhani said Iran and the Soviet Union divided the waters 50-50–meaning that Iran and the four new states created by the fall of communism should split the sea five ways.

Akhani said one way the dispute could be solved would be to have the waters used in common by all states–with the possible drawing of a 20 nautical mile boundary around the sea which would be the territory of each state.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after Akhani’s talks with Kalyuzhny that both sides expressed a will to reach a solution by talks and that further negotiations would be held.

Akhani said he would on Thursday hold further talks with Russian officials–before leaving for Turkmen capital Ashgabat for two days of discussions there. Turkmen’stan has called for a summit in Ashgabat of all five states in October.

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