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Arctic Coastal Countries Meet in Canada Amid Controversy

Foreign ministers of the five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean met near the Canadian capital, Ottawa, on Monday to discuss maritime boundaries, disaster response and other issues. The meeting -- involving Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Denmark, which also administers Greenland -- came amid complaints that northern indigenous groups and other countries with Arctic interests were not invited.

The meeting came amid allegations from environmental groups and others that the five coastal states intend to divide Arctic oil and gas wealth, and other natural resources among themselves to the exclusion of other regional countries.

But the Canadian hosts said the meeting focused on issues such as Arctic search and rescue, and disaster response, and that the five states have no intention of forming a permanent grouping or circumventing the broader Arctic Council that also includes Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

Speaking at a news conference at the end of the three-hour meeting, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said the Arctic coastal, or littoral, states have special responsibilities and must be prepared to meet them.

"If there is an emergency or if there is a catastrophe that occurs -- either in the United States, in Russian or Canadian sovereign waters -- they will look to us, our population will look to us, to be able to bring aid, to make sure that our coast guard officials are there, that we do provide the search and rescue. Those are things that are fundamentally important and fall under the responsibility of the Arctic coastal states," he said.

Cannon said the Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible due to climate change and that the coastal states will be the most directly affected by accidents and other public safety challenges.

He also said they have a commitment to the orderly settlement of conflicting claims as they delineate the outer limits of their continental shelves. Cannon said that as much as one-fifth of the world's oil and gas reserves might be in the Arctic region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not appear at the press event. But in remarks to the meeting released by her staff, she said the melting of Arctic sea ice, glaciers and permafrost due to global warming will affect people and ecosystems around the world, and that the United States seeks an architecture for Arctic cooperation that is "inclusive and transparent."

She took specific note of complaints by indigenous groups and uninvited Scandinavian countries, and said that the voices of all of those with legitimate interests in the region should be heard.

"We need all hands on deck," Clinton said, "because there is a huge amount to do and not much time to do it."

The five nation Arctic meeting was a prelude to a meeting here of foreign ministers of the G-8 industrial powers and Russia that is to lay the groundwork for a summit of the eight countries in Ontario, Canada in late June.

The G-8 foreign ministers, meeting over dinner late Monday and in a plenary session on Tuesday, are expected to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program as well as terrorism and the conflict in Afghanistan.