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US working to boost sea forces in oil-rich Caspian: envoy Breaking News published on 22/09/2005

Baku, September 21 - The United States is pushing for the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to beef up their naval capacity on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, a senior diplomat in the region said.

The US ambassador in the Azeri capital Baku said that Washington, which has so far invested some 30 million dollars in upgrading Azerbaijan's coastguard with a sophisticated radar system, personnel training and ship repair, is also pushing for the country's navy to undergo similar improvements.

The Caspian region is strategic both because of its huge oil potential and because of its geographical position between Russia and the Middle East.

The United States plans to spend a total of 135 million dollars within the framework of the US-funded Caspian Guard Initiative, which envisions improving the capabilities of the maritime forces of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Ambassador Reno Harnish said.

"Only recently have we started to see that we need both of them" -- the coastguard and navy -- "to cooperate to make this thing work," Harnish told AFP in a recent interview in the US embassy compound.

"We've mentioned this to the government of Azerbaijan and we're working on it -- it's a thing in progress," he added.

US officials have pointed to Kazakhstan's accession in August to Washington's Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement as a sign that it may be prepared to join the Caspian Guard program under that agreement as well.

"This is an unpredictable region," Harnish said in answer to a question on why Washington was keen on upgrading the two ex-Soviet republics' sea forces.

The Caspian Sea is home to some of the world's largest oil deposits with an estimated 37 billion barrels of oil in the Azerbaijani and Kazakhstani sectors alone.

Deposits that straddle yet-undelineated maritime borders between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan are often a source of friction for the states' navies.

Meanwhile the United States has backed the construction of the four-billion-dollar Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan oil pipeline that is scheduled to start pumping oil to the Mediterranean coast of NATO ally Turkey in the final quarter of 2005.

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