Guyana accuses Venezuela of 'aggressive behavior' near border area

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he speaks during his weekly broadcast "In contact with Maduro" in Caracas in this handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace on September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

GEORGETOWN (Reuters) - Guyana's President David Granger said on Tuesday neighboring Venezuela had launched an "extraordinary military deployment" in the east of the OPEC country, near a disputed border area.

"We have noticed during the month of September an extraordinary escalation of Venezuelan military activity in eastern Venezuela," Granger said at his Georgetown office.

"It is a persistence of aggressive behavior, hostile behavior towards Guyana," he said, adding the deployment was "mostly marine and various forms of ground forces." He did not provide further details.

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on Tuesday the armed forces were conducting military exercises in both the east and west of the country.

"I call on the people of Venezuela to stay calm because we're seriously preparing ourselves," Padrino said in a televised speech at the Fuerte Tiuna military base.

Granger's comments come against the backdrop of a spike in tensions between Guyana and Venezuela - long divided by a centuries-old territorial dispute - due to a recent oil discovery off the coast of the poor South American country.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has described newly-elected Granger as a "hostage of Exxon Mobil," which discovered the oil in a potential boon for Guyana, whose economy relies heavily on rice, gold, diamonds and bauxite.

Many in Guyana, a small nation of 800,000 people sandwiched between Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, fear that their larger neighbor is seeking to lay hands on its newfound oil wealth.

Exxon Mobil Corp is drilling in the so-called Stabroek Block, about 120 miles (190 km) off Guyana's coast.

Maduro's critics say he is using the border dispute - as well as a more recent one with Colombia - to distract voters from high inflation, a severe recession and rampant crime ahead of December's parliamentary elections.

The leftist leader has also deployed troops to municipalities near the Colombian border amid what he calls a crackdown on smuggling.

Price-fixed goods ranging from flour to gasoline are also smuggled over the border to Guyana, where they can be sold for a handsome profit.

(Reporting by Neil Marks; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alan Crosby and Tom Brown)