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OTTAWA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a rare public rebuke to close ally Canada on Monday, criticizing it for excluding key nations from a meeting to discuss the resource-rich Arctic.
Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon gathered his counterparts from Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark for three hours of talks on Monday on the grounds that they were the only nations with Arctic coastlines.
The decision prompted unhappiness in Sweden, Finland and Iceland, who are also members of the eight-nation Arctic Council -- traditionally the body where most important decisions on the region are taken.
"Significant international discussions on Arctic issues should include those who have legitimate interests in the region," Clinton said in a statement issued before the meeting had even begun.
"I hope the Arctic will always showcase our ability to work together, not create new divisions."
Global warming is gradually melting the Arctic ice cap, raising the possibility of increased shipping and mineral extraction in the remote and environmentally sensitive region.
Canada and the United States have very close ties and Clinton's statement was the first open official rebuke of Ottawa since the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, which Canada refused to participate in.
Cannon spent much of his closing news conference responding to questions about Clinton's statement and insisting he was not trying to marginalize the Arctic Council.
"This meeting was not (designed) to replace or undermine the Arctic Council ... this forum is not meant to become a permanent institution," he said. Clinton was not present at the news conference.
The five nations that did participate in the meeting are the only ones engaged in a protracted process of filing territorial claims in the Arctic, a region that experts say contains rich oil and gas deposits.
"While development may be years in the future, the renewable and nonrenewable resource potential of the Arctic Ocean represents tremendous opportunities," said Cannon.
"We have a common commitment to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims."
The five countries would also be the first to respond to emergencies or disasters in the Arctic, he said.
Greenpeace said the quintet was "focusing on carving up the petroleum pie rather than ensuring a sustainable future for the Arctic".
Cannon will host a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations later on Monday and on Tuesday.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson