Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 11:31 UK

Arctic nations discuss territory

Arctic landscape, Nunavut, Canada
Melting pack ice could open the link between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans

Foreign ministers from five countries with Arctic coastal waters are gathering in Greenland to discuss territorial claims to the region.

Denmark, which is hosting the two days of talks, wants fellow participants Canada, Norway, Russia and the US to abide by UN rules on such claims.

The talks are aimed at blocking a scramble for reserves of oil and gas.

Scientists believe rising temperatures could leave most of the Arctic ice-free in summer months.

This would improve drilling access and open up the Northwest Passage, a potentially lucrative trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that European explorers sought for centuries.

'Rules of the game'

Under the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea convention, the five countries may be able to extend their sovereignty beyond the usual 200-nautical mile limit (370 km) recognised in international law, if the seabed is an extension of the continental shelf.

Denmark, which administers Greenland, hopes to sign a declaration that the United Nations would rule on any disputes.

The Danish Foreign Minister, Per Stig Moeller, told the BBC that a final decision on exploration rights is not expected for another 10 or 15 years, but that some sort of agreement is needed now:

"We have claims - and the others also have claims. So what I am hoping to get out of this conference is that we agree on the rules of the game. That we do not do anything which harms the others until the United Nations has decided who is entitled to what area of the North Pole," he said.

Denmark disagrees with Canada about mineral rights in the coastal waters, while Canada and the United States are in dispute about the Northwest Passage.

A Russian expedition last year planted a Russian tricolour flag on the seabed at the North Pole, laying claim to an area of over one million square kilometres.

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