Turkish ship explores near Greek Cypriot gas rig

Turkey said on Tuesday it was exploring for gas in an offshore zone where Greek Cyprus started drilling last week, the latest step in a battle over Mediterranean resources that overshadowed the resumption of peace talks for the divided island.

Turkish research ship Piri Reis is in Eastern Mediterranean for oil and gas exploration. (Photo: Zaman)

Turkish research ship Piri Reis is in Eastern Mediterranean for oil and gas exploration. (Photo: Zaman)

On Sept. 23, Turkey dispatched its only research vessel, the Piri Reis, to the eastern Mediterranean.

“Piri Reis, escorted by warships, has started research in the same area where Greek Cypriots are exploring,” Ömer Çelik, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) who oversees foreign affairs, said on Twitter.

“We have shown clearly to everyone that we will not allow the eastern Mediterranean to become a Greek Cyprus-Israel goal,” Çelik said in another message.

The Turkish Cypriot prime minister had said overnight that the vessel had begun exploring, but did not say precisely where. Greek Cypriot sources have said the Turkish vessel is about 80 km (50 miles) from where the Greek Cypriots are drilling.

The question of who has the right to tap what may be the world’s biggest natural gas find of the past decade has added sudden urgency to long delayed efforts to settle the conflict over Cyprus, divided since 1974 into Greek and Turkish enclaves.

The internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government says it has a sovereign right to drill. Turkey, the only country to recognize a separate Turkish Cypriot government in the north of the island, says the island’s status must be resolved first.

In Nicosia, Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu resumed peace talks on Tuesday after a 10-day break for UN General Assembly deliberations.

The two sides are racing to make progress on complex reunification negotiations before a scheduled encounter with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the end of October. The hydrocarbons controversy had not come up in the talks, a source close to consultations told Reuters.

Last week, US-based Noble Energy started drilling offshore on behalf of Greek Cyprus in an area termed Block 12, south of the island. Turkey has pledged to drill for gas on behalf of Turkish Cypriots unless the Greek Cypriots stop.

“If the Greek Cypriots agree to stop, we’ll stop too. But if they insist on proceeding, they know very well Turkey’s attitude,” Turkey’s minister for European Affairs, Egemen Bağış, visiting the Turkish side of the island, said on Tuesday.

“We have to warn against Greek Cypriot provocation. The resources are not going anywhere, so why are they being used to block [Cyprus reunification] negotiations?”

Bağış said the Greek Cypriots cannot unilaterally claim right over “the island’s shared resources” and added: “Those who take unilateral steps in this regard will get the response from Turkey.”

Last week, Turkey and Turkish Cyprus signed their own pact outlining maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, paving the way for gas exploration. Turkey said it would protect any research vessel with warships, raising the prospect of an armed stand-off on the high seas.

Turkey’s Navy has made no announcement regarding the deployment of warships in the area. But captain of the research ship, Umut Yenice, told the Anatolia news agency on Tuesday that the crew was “in frequent contacts with the Turkish frigates nearby.”