Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to end land row
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By Antoine Lawson
Libreville - The presidents of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea vowed on Saturday to settle a border dispute over a small island which lies in potentially oil-rich waters between the two Central African states.
Gabon's President Omar Bongo told reporters in the capital Libreville he was optimistic a solution acceptable to both oil-producing countries would be found.
"This is what we are working on and I think we will find a solution between the two of us which can satisfy everybody," Bongo said after meeting the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Speaking on Gabon's state television on Saturday, Obiang said he hoped an agreement would be reached on Mbanie, a rocky, virtually uninhabited island of just 30 hectares currently under Gabon's control.
"You know that this issue is being mediated by the United Nations and we wish a peaceful solution to the problem for the sake of both countries," he said before leaving Libreville.
"The neighbouring people of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea must benefit in an equitable manner from the exploitation of the mineral resources which may abound in this islet."
The dispute has been simmering since 1972, when Gabon's army chased Equatorial Guinean fighters from Mbanie. But it had been largely forgotten until the prospect of oil rekindled interest in the Gulf of Guinea.
Obiang and Bongo pledged before United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a summit in July last year to hold negotiations on a joint development zone and strike a deal over territorial waters around Mbanie so that potential reserves could be exploited.
But just weeks after the summit, Equatorial Guinea's foreign minister said his tiny country - sub-Saharan Africa's third biggest oil producer - planned to send soldiers shortly to the island until the dispute was settled.
Officials say no troops have been sent so far.
Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa's fifth-largest oil producer. The local unit of Shell says it has rights to prospect the Mbanie zone according to its contract with the Gabonese authorities, but has put the project on hold.
Gabon and Equatorial Guinea also have a border dispute on the nearby Corisco island, which is inhabited by people from the Benga ethnic group, present in both countries.
In Libreville, the two leaders also discussed a row over who should be allowed to run in elections slated for next month in nearby Central African Republic.
That country's president, former coup leader Francois Bozize, and candidates who have been barred from running against him in the poll arrived in Gabon on Saturday to try to sort out their differences with Bongo's help.