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Summit seeks accord on Arctic sovereignty
Updated: 2008-05-29 09:07

ILULISSAT, Greenland - The five nations that ring the Arctic Ocean affirmed their willingness to cooperate to protect its environment, at the end of a day-long ministerial summit in Greenland.

An arerial view of the Quervain bay (Greenland west coast), pictured in September 2007. [Agencies]

"We will take steps in accordance with international law... to ensure the protection and the preservation of the fragile environment of the Arctic Ocean," said a statement agreed Wednesday by envoys from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States.

"We intend to work together, including through the International Maritime Organization, to strengthen existing measures and to develop new measures to improve the safety of maritime navigation and prevent or reduce the risk of ship-based pollution in the Arctic Ocean," it added.

The five nations went on to pledge to strengthen cooperation over the Arctic Ocean -- including scientific research -- "based on mutual trust and transparency."

The summit in Ilulissat, on Greenland's west coast, was the first to be held at ministerial level between the five regional powers.

It was aimed at easing recent tensions as each nation seeks to extend its sovereignty to the Arctic waters that could hold 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas, according to the US Geological Survey.

"The race for the North Pole has been cancelled," said Swedish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, hailing the outcome.

Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said: "The declaration reflects the will of all participants to resolve the issue through negociations in a spirit of cooperation and on the basis of international law."

But concern was expressed by a prominant Inuit spokesman, who said the indigenous peoples of the Arctic were being "marginalised".

"Inuit have their own definition of sovereignty," said Aqqaluk Lynge, the Greenlandic politician who is president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which speaks for 150,000 Inuit.

Lynge said Inuit leaders would gather in the northern Canadian town of Kuujjuaq in November for their own summit on how to "collectively respond to the main forces -- state, industry and others -- that are debating questions of ownership of our lands and seas without us having a meaningful voice".

Rivalry between the five Arctic neighbours has heated up as the melting polar ice makes the region more accessible.

Denmark and Canada, for instance, have a longstanding disagreement over who owns the tiny, uninhabited, ice-covered Hans island, which straddles Nares Strait between Greenland and Canada's Ellesmere Island.

Canada and the United States are meanwhile at odds over the sovereignty of the Northwest Passage, which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Scientists say the Northwest Passage could open up to year-round shipping by 2050.

Last year, Russian explorers claimed to have planted their national flag at the bottom of the ocean, at a depth of more than 4,000 metres (yards), after an expedition aimed at underlining Moscow's aspirations to Arctic territory.

According to international law, each of the countries bordering the Arctic hold sovereignty over a zone measuring 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres). That leaves 1.2 million square kilometres (465,000 square miles) of unclaimed territory.