The Malaysian owners of a U.S.-hired oil survey ship seized last week by Venezuela in a territorial dispute with neighboring Guyana said on Tuesday the boat and its 36-member crew had been released.
There was no confirmation of that from either the government of Venezuela or Guyana and the Venezuelan public prosecutor's office put out a statement detailing the formal charging of the ship's Ukrainian captain.
The Panama-flagged Teknik Perdana was carrying out a seabed survey for Texas-based Anadarko in conjunction with Guyanese authorities when Venezuela's navy boarded it on Thursday and escorted it to Margarita island.
Reviving a century-old dispute with Guyana, Venezuela accused the ship of violating its maritime territory.
The government of Guyana, a former British colony of 750,000 people, retorted that the ship was well within its territory and the seizure was an act of aggression.
According to the Malaysian owner, SapuraKencana Petroleum, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government had decided to free the vessel.
"We wish to express our gratitude to the Venezuelan government for caring for the safety and welfare of the crew, which comprises multiple nationalities, during the time they were at Margarita island and also for releasing the vessel," the Kuala Lumpur-based company said in a statement.
A planned meeting between foreign ministers of the two South American countries in Trinidad and Tobago - to discuss the saga of the ship and a century-old border dispute - was still set for Thursday, Guyanese officials said.
Casting doubt on the version from Malaysia, the Venezuelan public prosecutor's office said the ship's Ukrainian captain Igor Bekirov had been charged at Margarita with failing to respect the boundaries of a security zone.
He was awaiting further court appearances, it said.
Guyanese officials said the ship's three dozen crew included citizens of eight countries: the United States, Russia, France, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, Panama and Ukraine.
Oil companies have been increasingly interested in the northeastern shoulder of South America since a discovery off nearby French Guyana in 2011 that industry experts described as a game-changer for the region's energy prospects.
Guyana awarded Anadarko Petroleum a deep-water exploration license in June last year for a block named Roraima.
An Anadarko spokesman did not respond to requests for comment, and the U.S. embassy in Caracashad no comment.
Venezuela and Guyana have long argued about the status of the disputed Essequibo region, an area on the border about the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, and over rights to the ocean resources that lie offshore.
SapuraKencana said its president and group CEO Tan Sri Shahril Shamsuddin had met Venezuela's ambassador to Malaysia to try and resolve the matter.
"At that meeting, the Venezuelan ambassador gave a firm assurance that the crew were safe and were being treated well by the authorities there," it said, adding that Malaysia's envoy in Venezuela had rushed to Margarita to help mediate the situation.
Copyright Reuters 2013. Photo Courtesy of MarineTraffic.com.