By Luc Cohen
CARACAS (Reuters) - Guyana's government is "in discussion" with Exxon Mobil after two ships searching for oil off the South American country's coast halted work following a weekend confrontation with Venezuela's navy, Guyana's foreign minister said on Monday.
Both neighbouring South American countries said the Saturday incident had occurred within their territorial waters. A century-long border dispute has heated up in recent years as Irving, Texas-based Exxon has discovered more than 5 billion barrels of oil and gas off Guyana's shores.
Guyana Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge said he could not "for the moment" say whether the two ships owned by Norway's Petroleum Geo-Services and hired by Exxon would resume their seismic survey, or if they would return to the area where the incident occurred, citing the ongoing talks with Exxon.
When asked if Guyanese authorities would provide the vessels with protection if they continue exploration, he said Guyana is "committed to resolving territorial disputes by peaceful means."
"We will therefore first try to explore and exhaust Diplomatic channels," Greenidge said in an emailed response to questions from Reuters. "Guyana is a small state of less than a million persons compared with Venezuela's population of 30 million."
Earlier on Monday, Exxon declined to say when the survey would restart, referring questions to PGS. Bard Stenberg, a PGS senior vice president, declined to comment on any resumption of the work or if the company has sought to have Guyana provide protection for its vessels.
There were two PGS ships involved in the confrontation, the Ramform Tethys and Delta Monarch, Stenberg said on Monday.
"A couple hours later we learnt that the Venezuelan navy had withdrawn from the area," he added.
Critics of Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro say he has rekindled tensions with its eastern neighbour over the Essequibo region, a sparsely populated area making up two-thirds of Guyana's territory that is also claimed by Venezuela, to distract from a severe economic crisis in the OPEC-member nation.
Venezuela is home to the world's largest crude reserves, but production is hovering near its lowest levels in 70 years due to underinvestment, hyperinflation, and mismanagement under military control of the company.
Saturday's confrontation recalled an October 2013 incident when Venezuela's navy seized a ship carrying out a seabed survey for Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp in Guyana, accusing it of violating its maritime territory. Venezuela freed the vessel a week later.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Gary McWilliams, Tom Brown and Muralikumar Anantharaman)