Confrontation in the Sarstoon: Belize-Guatemala tensions escalate
Wednesday, March 16th, 2016
While Belizeans were enjoying their weekend and going about their businesses on Saturday, March 12th, a confrontation between the armed forces of Belize and Guatemala was set to unravel at the Sarstoon area in Southern Belize.
The Government of Belize (GOB) confirmed the incident via a press release on Sunday, March 13th, stating that it would take the issue to the Organization of American States (OAS) on Tuesday, March 14th in Washington, USA.
According to the press release, the incident arose on Saturday evening, when members of the Belize Defence Force (BDF) were approached by the Guatemalan Navy. They told the BDF that they should not be at the Sarstoon, and that they could only move about the Sarstoon River with Guatemalan permission.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOA), the incident did not end there, as Guatemalan soldiers behaved in an “extremely hostile and threatening manner.” Nevertheless, the BDF stood their ground, and after some time the Guatemalans forces withdrew.
After the confrontation, GOB, for the first time, sounded the alarm and acknowledged that tension with Guatemala over the Sarstoon “is at an all-time high.”
According to the MOA, at the time of the event, the Commander of the BDF, Brigadier General David Jones spoke to his military counterpart in Guatemala, while Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow sent messages to Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
While the Belizean delegation prepared to head to Washington, the Prime Minister convened a special meeting with the National Security Council on Monday, March 14th to further discuss the matter. Shortly after, there was a press briefing, where BDF Commander explained what happened.
According to Jones, late on Saturday, a Guatemalan vessel came over in front of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) being built by the BDF and began speaking to the Belizean troops through a speaker phone. Jones explained that the Guatemalans were complaining about a Belizean vessel that on the previous day had gone up the Sarstoon River all the way to the Belizean observation post of Cadenas and did not report to them.
“They are not aware of our complete schedule of how we go through the Sarstoon so they were expressing their dissatisfaction that they didn’t know,” said Jones. “Our troops have never gone in there and asked permission to go through and we continue to go through the Sarstoon without asking permission.”
Furthermore, Jones stated that after speaking with his Guatemalan counterpart, he was assured that there will be no more interceptions at the river as they work together for peace in the area.
Additionally, Barrow stated that following the incident, a strongly worded protest note was sent to Guatemala via the MOA. That diplomatic note was answered by the Guatemalan government in which they denied the BDF version on how the event transpired. The Guatemalans further stated that the Belizean arm forces were just being reminded that they should follow the protocols established whenever they use the Sarstoon River. The diplomatic noted ended by strongly stating that all of the Sarstoon River belongs to Guatemala and that they will continue to exercise sovereignty on this.
Consequently, Belize has internationalized the issue by contacting key members of the international community, including those from the United States and the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Barrow also personally briefed the Honorable John Briceño, Leader of the Opposition about the incident at Sarstoon. As the situation is becoming extremely sensitive, a member of the Opposition, Assad Shoman, also accompanied the Belizean delegation that attended a meeting with their Guatemalan counterparts at the OAS headquarters in Washington D.C.
There were were not much details about the outcome of the meeting, but according to a tweet from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the meeting was a positive one. It was informed that both foreign ministers of Belize and Guatemala committed to continue cooperating in an amicable and positive manner in order to find a peaceful resolution to the long-disputed territorial dispute.
Currently, the Belize Special Assignment Group is positioned at the Sarstoon FOB. However, all operating activities including unloading of shipments around the area have been abruptly suspended.
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