Russians want part of Alaska returned

ONE HUNDRED and thirty-two years after selling the vast and mineral- rich land of Alaska to the United States for $7.2m - a mere two cents an acre - in one of history's least lucrative land deals, Russia wants some of it back.

To the annoyance of the Alaskans, Moscow has been pressing the US government to part with 40,000 square miles of the seas and fishing grounds that separate East from West along the International Dateline.

The issue is part of a broader territorial issue in the far north that centres on a barren island well inside the Arctic Circle, just below the point at which the polar ice never melts. Aptly, this patch of 1,700 square miles is known by the Alaskans as Wrangel Island.

The island, which is usually frozen and populated by polar bears, is one of eight rocks and islands in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea which, with their large and rich seabeds, ended up in Russian territory under an agreement struck between what was the Soviet Union and the United States in 1990.

Notwithstanding its own vast and rich 548,400 square miles of land - in which there is an average of less than one person per square mile - Alaska was infuriated by the deal, not least because state representatives believe there may be oil and other important natural resources in the region.

The state's MPs contend that Alaska was denied the right to participate in the negotiations with the Soviet Union by the US government. The talks were held in secret. Alaska is also pressing for the agreement to be declared null and void, as the Soviet Union collapsed before it could be ratified by Moscow. Despite that, Russia and the US have since agreed to abide by the deal.

State rights are a particularly sensitive issue in Alaska, which until 1959 was denominated as a territory under an unelected governor chosen by the US president. Equally, Alaska - which was under Russian control for 126 years, after its trappers poured across the Bering Straits in search of sea otters and fur seals - has long been jealously eyed by Moscow, which has yet to forget how it gave the place away for a song in the mid- 19th century.

The issue of the so-called 1990 US-USSR Maritime Boundary Agreement has been simmering away for several years, but disagreements took an abrupt step forward a week ago when Alaska's governor, Tony Knowles, signed a resolution from both houses of the state legislature, strongly urging the US government to renegotiate it.

Although non-binding legally, the resolution heightens the pressure on the US federal government. The state is threatening to follow it up with a series of hearings on the issue. It argues that if it loses its 40,000 square miles of water to the Russians, then with it will go a potential annual catch of some 300 million pounds of fish, with nothing in return.

Wrangel is the jewel in the crown of the disputed territories. Alaska has long seen it as its own partly because it had a fur-trapping company on the island until 1924, when the Soviet Union occupied it. Quite apart from its possible mineral riches, it is rich in history: several years ago Russian scientists found the remains of 23 dwarf woolly mammoths on Wrangel, which they believed survived the Ice Age by 6,000 years, before finally being eradicated by early man.