Naval ships from Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar) are facing off in the Bay of Bengal as a maritime boundary dispute between the two countries escalates. On Wednesday, a Bangladeshi diplomatic mission is expected to arrive in Rangoon (Yangon) to settle the matter peacefully.
Naval vessels from both countries are facing one another after the Burmese side reportedly began exploring in the area for oil and gas.
Bangladesh insists that the area lies well within its waters and has formally protested over the issue.
Bangladesh's foreign minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he had warned Myanmar's envoy to Dhaka that "all steps would be taken to protect the sovereignty and territory of Bangladesh."
His comments came a day after Bangladesh summoned Myanmar's envoy to hand over a "strong protest note" over the reported intrusion of vessels from its southeastern neighbour to carry out oil exploration activities.
Foreign ministry officials have confirmed that Bangladesh rushed two warships and a naval patrol vessel to monitor Burmese exploration activities, reports Narinjara News, an independent news organization founded by Burmese refugees in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh sent three navy ships to disputed waters near Burma to protect its territory after Burmese ships intruded into the area to explore for gas and oil, stated a report of a Bangladesh official.
The report said, "Three naval ships of Bangladesh - BNS Abu Bakar, BNS Madhumati, and BNS Nirvoy - went to the spot challenging the Burmese ships."
The deployment came about after two naval warships escorted four Burmese ships into Bangladesh maritime territory to explore for oil and gas, ignoring Bangladesh navy warnings. Bangladesh has now positioned three ships at the scene in response to the encroachment.
The Myanmar government, meanwhile, said it would continue exploration in the Bay of Bengal, despite the territorial dispute with Bangladesh, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.
The official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said Myanmar has formally lodged a complaint over an alleged intrusion of Bangladesh Navy boats.
"We will not stop our exploration activities, which are inside Myanmar waters," the official said. "We have warned Bangladesh against the intrusion of their naval vessels into our territory."
According to Nairinjara News, talks between Bangladeshi and Burmese naval officers stationed on the deployed ships are also reportedly underway.
According to an official source, three Bangladesh navy ships are now in the area to discuss the issue with officials from the Burmese ships.
"The commanding officer of BNS Abu Bakar is currently in dialogue with the officers of Burma naval ships there," the official sources said.
The Burmese navy has responded by alleging that the Bangladesh ships are trespassing in Burmese territory.
Bangladesh has strongly protested the incursion through diplomatic channels and is demanding that the Burmese ships withdraw until a maritime boundary can be agreed upon through negotiations, reports the New Age, a Dhaka-based national newspaper.
Myanmar ambassador U Phae Thann Oo was summoned twice to the foreign ministry in [the] last 24 hours to lodge strong protests against the reported intrusion of marine vessels into Bangladesh waters and tell the authorities in Yangon to stop gas exploration works until territorial disputes are settled at the UN level.
On Wednesday, a diplomatic mission from Bangladesh is expected to arrive in Rangoon to defuse the escalating row, reports Reuters India.
"The dispute should not lead to a confrontation between the two friendly neighbours and must be solved immediately through diplomacy," Foreign Adviser (minister) Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury told reporters....
A team headed by Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain will visit Yangon on Wednesday, Chowdhury said. Another scheduled meeting on sea boundary demarcation will be held in Dhaka on Nov. 16 and 17.
Burma's alleged intrusion into Bangladesh's waters occurs less than a month after the Burmese Vice Senior General Maung Aye led a delegation to Dhaka and signed an agreement to speed up the resolution of longstanding issues. In October, Mizzima, a news service founded by exiled Burmese journalists, reported that disputed maritime boundaries were at the top of the agenda during the Bangladesh-Burma talks.
According to a Bangladesh based Burmese news agency, Kaladan Press Network (KPN), Bangladesh is keen on resolving the dispute over the maritime boundary with its neighbour Burma as it wants to explore the Bay of Bengal for natural gas reserves.
The Bangladesh government has recently taken measures to exploit the oil-rich Bay of Bengal, which have angered the leadership in Rangoon, reports AFP.
Early this year Bangladesh divided its sea territory into 28 blocks and auctioned off the area to international oil companies as part of its efforts to end chronic gas shortages in the once gas-rich country.
Myanmar immediately protested the move.
For several years, Bangladesh has been trying to define its maritime borders with the backing of the US and the European Union, but it has faced challenges from India and Burma. According to the New Age, Bangladesh and Burma have held a series of meetings this past year aimed at resolving maritime boundary disputes.
The two next-door neighbours resumed maritime boundary delimitation talks in January this year with a view to settle disputes over their command areas in the Bay of Bengal, rich in mineral resources.
They have planned to submit their claims to the United Nations as both are signatories to the UN Conventions on Law of the Sea. Myanmar is under UN obligation to draw its sea boundary by the middle of 2009, while Bangladesh will get time up to 2011.
During their three meetings so far, the two countries in principle agreed that none of them would carry out any exploration work in the disputed waters until the issue was amicably settled at the global forum.