A military helicopter carrying five senior Guyanese officials plus two crew members vanished in stormy weather on Wednesday near Guyana’s contested border with Venezuela, as the president of the former British colony said he had enlisted the United States, UK and UN to guarantee their safety against the ‘outlaw nation’.
Venezuela on Sunday held a referendum asking their citizens if they wanted to revive historic claims to a region of Guyana rich in minerals and oil.
President Nicolas Maduro announced that his nation overwhelmingly thought the area – Essequibo – belonged to Venezuela, and on Tuesday he unveiled a new map for official government purposes showing two thirds of Guyanese territory annexed to Caracas.
Guyana’s military on Wednesday dispatched a brand new Bell 412 EPI aircraft to the border region, carrying the five senior officials.
It refueled at the Olive Creek settlement in western Guyana, then took off and disappeared in the remote jungle region.
Venezuelan troops are seen mobilized in the border region, standing behind a map showing the Guyanese territory annexed to Venezuela
The brand new Bell 412 helicopter, similar to this one, disappeared on Wednesday in a storm
Army Chief Brigadier General Omar Khan said there was no indication the helicopter was brought down by their saber-rattling neighbor to the north.
‘We do not have any information suggesting that there was any flight by Venezuelan aircraft in that area,’ said Khan.
‘Speculation is not what I want to go into. Our priority is to save the lives of our officers and ranks.’
He said the U.S. government will help with the search when it resumes on Thursday.
The president of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, on Tuesday evening said he had raised the issue of the ‘dangerous developments’ with allies including the United States, Brazil – which borders both Guyana and Venezuela – and the United Kingdom.
Irfaan Ali, the president of Guyana, is seen addressing the nation on Tuesday night
Guyana was a British territory until independence in 1966, and remains a member of the Commonwealth – the only Commonwealth nation in South America, and the only English-speaking country.
Ali said that Maduro’s threat to annex two thirds of his country, an area around the size of Florida, was a flagrant violation of international law.
‘This is a direct threat to Guyana’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence, and a violation of fundamental principals of international law,’ said Ali, in an address to the nation on Tuesday night.
Venezuela has claimed Guyana’s Essequibo region for over 100 years, ever since the border of the present-day country was drawn up in 1899.
Their interest has been revived by the discovery of oil in the remote jungle area.
On December 1 – two days before Venezuela’s referendum – the UN’s court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), warned Venezuela to ‘refrain from taking any action which would modify that situation that currently prevails’ in the Essequibo region.
Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, is seen on Tuesday holding up his new map of the region – showing Guyana Esequiba, a region which is the size of Florida, under Venezuelan control
Alexis Rodríguez Cabello, left, is seen applauding as Maduro on Tuesday sent him to Tumeremo to run the Esequiba operation from the jungle border town
Venezuela on Tuesday published this new map, showing Esequiba under Venezuelan control
Ali said that Venezuela had ignored the ICJ’s demand.
‘The measures announced are in blatant disregard of the orders given by the International Court of Justice on December 1, 2023,’ said Ali.
‘Guyana views this as an imminent threat to its territorial integrity and will intensify precautionary measures to safeguard its territory.’
He accused Maduro of acting ‘in open defiance of the ICJ order’, and accused Venezuela of being ‘an outlaw nation’.
‘By defying the court, Venezuela has rejected international law; the rule of law generally’ fundamental justice and morality; and the preservation of international peace and security,’ he said.
‘They have literally declared themselves an outlaw nation.’
Ali said Maduro was ‘testing the mettle of the ICJ.’
‘He has taken a lonely and worrisome road of neglecting his responsibility as a member of the UN family,’ said Ali.
‘An adventurous and reckless path, that can only bring instability to this region and can only create more uncertain circumstances for the Venezuelan people.’
He concluded: ‘We urge President Maduro to rethink these steps and behave in actions and accordance with international law.
‘We want nothing: our only ambition is for this region to remain a zone of peace, and for the territorial integrity of Guyana to be respected. We ask for nothing more and nothing less.’
Venezuela’s government condemned Ali’s statement, accusing Guyana of acting irresponsibly and giving the U.S. Southern Command a green light to enter the Essequibo region.
Venezuela’s defense minister tweeted video of the army preparing for battle, waving flags saying ‘Guyana Esequiba’, colored in the Venezuelan flag
A ‘Guyana Esequiba’ sign, in the colors of the Venezuelan flag
Venezuela called on Guyana to leave aside its ‘erratic, threatening and risky conduct.’
Venezuela’s military, backed by Russia, Iran and Cuba, massively outnumbers tiny Guyana’s: the Venezuelan military counts 123,000 active personnel versus only 3,400 for Guyana, according to an analysis in Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.
Guyana is also dwarfed by Venezuela in weaponry, with Venezuela having 514 armored vehicles compared to only six owned by Guyana.
But military analysts point out that decades of mismanagement by the struggling Socialist regime have significantly weakened Venezuela’s capacity.
Igor Gielow, a military expert cited by the newspaper, said that only around half of the fleet of 24 Russian‐built Sukhoi Su‐30 fighter jets are considered fit to fly.
‘But even as a paper tiger, Venezuela is a colossus compared to Guyana,’ said Gielow.
King Charles is seen with the president of Guyana, Irfaan Ali (left) and the vice president, Bharrat Jagdeo, at the COP28 climate change summit in Dubai last week
He said the logistics of an invasion would be complicated.
‘A good part of the 800‐kilometer‐long border between Venezuela and Esequiba consists of dense jungle, which is impenetrable save for small units,’ he said, adding that it was impossible to use armored vehicles in the swampy tropical terrain.
‘The most logical possibility for dictator Nicolas Maduro is a combination of airborne attack against Esequiba’s few urban centers and an amphibious landing on the Caribbean,’ he said.
Such an attack would draw a strong international response, with the lead likely played by Brazil, which borders both Venezuela and Guyana and whose military is significantly larger and more professional than either country’s.
At the end of November, Brazil’s defense ministry said it ‘has intensified defensive actions’ along its northern border.
‘The Ministry of Defense has been monitoring the situation. Defensive actions have been intensified in the northern border region of the country, promoting a greater military presence,’ it said in a statement.