A U.S. Navy warship conducted a freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, Tuesday off Venezuela in an effort to contest “an excessive maritime claim” by the South American nation.

The guided-missile destroyer Nitze undertook the FONOP outside of Venezuela’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters, according to a release from U.S. Southern Command.

A command official said the mission was undertaken “to challenge Venezuela’s excessive maritime claim of security jurisdiction from 12 to 15 nautical miles along its coastline and prior permission requirement for military operations within the Exclusive Economic Zone, which are contrary to international law.”

Exclusive economic zones stretch out 200 nautical miles from a country’s coasts and grant that nation control over fisheries and resources there, but those swaths are still international waters.

Nitze’s FONOP follows a similar operation in January by the littoral combat ship Detroit, according to command spokesman Jose Ruiz.

The United States has joined nearly 60 other countries in backing Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate ruler, rather than the dictatorial President Nicolas Maduro, who is accused of illegitimately winning a 2018 election that banned other opponents and driving his oil-rich country into financial ruin.

This week’s naval operation “lawfully navigated an area the illegitimate Maduro regime falsely claims to have control over, a claim that is inconsistent with international law,” the SOUTHCOM release states.

“The Administration continues its unwavering support for interim President Guaidó, the democratically-elected National Assembly, and the Venezuelan people in their fight for freedom, basic human rights, and a restoration of democracy and the rule of law,” the White House National Security Council tweeted Monday.

The Navy regularly carries out such FONOPs in the South China Sea to reinforce that waters increasingly claimed by Beijing are international.

Navy and U.S. Coast Guard ships are deployed to SOUTHCOM’s Caribbean waters as part of an “enhanced counter-narcotics operations,” according to the command release.

“The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, preserving the rights, freedoms and lawful use of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations,” SOUTHCOM’s commander, Adm. Craig Faller, said in a statement. “These freedoms are the bedrock of ongoing security efforts, and essential to regional peace and stability.”

The U.S. FONOP follows the arrival of five gasoline tankers from Iran off the Venezuelan coast late last month, an effort to ease Venezuela’s fuels shortage that defies U.S. sanctions targeting the two countries, the Associated Press reported.

Two U.S. citizens and at least a dozen Venezuelans were arrested May 4 after attempting to overthrow Maduro.

The bizarre operation involved several former Green Berets, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper has denied any U.S. government involvement in that effort.

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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