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Canada to increase its patrols in Arctic

US objects, calls area international

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada

TORONTO -- Canada announced plans yesterday to increase its Arctic military presence in an effort to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage -- a potentially oil-rich region the United States says is international territory.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said six to eight patrol ships will guard what he says are Canadian waters. A deep water port will also be built in a region the US Geological Survey estimates has as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it," Harper said. "It is no exaggeration to say that the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the North on our terms have never been more urgent."

US Ambassador David Wilkins has criticized Harper's promise to defend the Arctic, claiming the Northwest Passage as neutral waters. But Wilkins declined to comment yesterday , US Embassy spokesman James Foster said.

"It's an international channel for passage," Foster said of the disputed waterway.

As global warming melts the passage -- now only navigable during a slim window in the summer -- the waters are exposing unexplored resources such as oil, fishing stocks, and minerals, and becoming an attractive shipping route. Commercial ships can shave off some 2,480 miles from Europe to Asia compared with current routes through the Panama Canal.

The disputed route runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. It gained historical fame among European explorers who longed to find the shorter route to Asia, but found it rendered inhospitable by ice and weather.

Sir John Franklin, a British Arctic explorer, and 128 hand picked officers and men perished mysteriously in 1845 on their expedition to find a northwest passage. Their disappearance prompted one of history's largest rescue searches from 1848 to 1859, which resulted in the discovery of a passage.

Canadians have long claimed the waters. But their government has generally turned a blind eye to the United States, which has sent naval vessels and submarines through what it considers an international strait.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the ice cap is warming faster than the rest of the planet and ice is receding, partly due to greenhouse gases.

"The ongoing discovery of the north's resource riches coupled with the potential impact of climate change has made the region a growing area of interest and concern," Harper said.