GEORGETOWN/CARACAS, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Venezuela's navy on Saturday "intercepted" a ship exploring for oil on behalf of Exxon Mobil Corp in Guyanese waters, neighboring Guyana's foreign ministry said in a statement, in the latest incident in a century-old border dispute.
A series of offshore oil discoveries in recent years have given Guyana the potential to become one of Latin America's largest producers. In OPEC member Venezuela, by contrast, crude output has tumbled to its lowest levels in nearly 70 years amid an economic crisis.
The Ramform Tethys vessel, which belongs to Norwegian company Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) and was conducting seismic survey work on behalf of Exxon, stopped exploration and turned east after being approached by the Venezuelan navy, PGS spokesman Bard Stenberg said in a statement.
"Guyana rejects this illegal, aggressive and hostile act," Guyana's foreign ministry said in a late Saturday statement, adding that the move "demonstrates the real threat to Guyana's economic development by its western neighbor" and "violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country."
The ministry added that it would report the incident to the United Nations and send formal communication to Venezuela's government. It said it would inform the governments of the various homelands of the 70 crew members aboard the vessel, flagged by the Bahamas, of the "threat to their safety."
Exxon did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Venezuela's Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro has previously criticized Guyana's decision to allow oil exploration to go ahead in the waters off the shore of the Essequibo region, a sparsely populated and dense jungle area equivalent to around two-thirds of Guyanese territory that Venezuela also claims.
Guyana says Caracas agreed to relinquish the area after a ruling by an international tribunal in 1899, but Venezuela later backtracked on that decision. The United Nations earlier this year referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice, a move welcomed by Georgetown but criticized by Caracas.
The dispute has heated up in recent years as Exxon has announced the discovery of more than 4 billion barrels of oil off the shore of Guyana, an English-speaking nation of 750,000 with no history of oil production.
The latest incident comes less than a day after Guyana's parliament toppled the current government in a no-confidence vote, paving the way for elections in three months. (Reporting by Neil Marks in Georgetown and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting and writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Hugh Lawson)