WASHINGTON Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he saw a good opportunity for progress towards ending the division of Cyprus, a move that could further the exploitation of natural gas and oil in the eastern Mediterranean.
The island has been divided since a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by a Turkish invasion of the north in 1974. Turkey keeps some 30,000 troops in the north and is the only nation to recognize the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Efforts to reunite the island have repeatedly failed, but Turkish officials say the election in February of President Nicos Anastasiades, who backed a 2004 U.N. plan to resolve the division, presents the best hope in years of reaching a deal.
"We believe that there is a lot of opportunity to reach an agreement on the Cyprus issue, and this is an area which we continue to focus on," Erdogan said at a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama during a trip to Washington.
Anastasiades backed the 2004 plan proposed by then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, even though a majority of his Greek Cypriot compatriots rejected it in a referendum shortly before the island joined the European Union.
The Turkish Cypriots in the north backed Annan's proposal.
"We're optimistic, we're working for a solution and we are asking the United States to apply diplomatic support to this as well," a Turkish official said ahead of talks between Erdogan and Obama.
Turkey itself began EU entry talks in 2005, a year after Cyprus was admitted, but its bid has been blocked by the intractable dispute over the island, as well as by longstanding opposition from core EU members Germany and France.
The Mediterranean island concluded a 10 billion euro ($13 billion) bailout deal with the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund in April to stave off bankruptcy.
Development of its offshore Aphrodite gas field, which may contain 5 trillion to 8 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas, could reverse its financial fortunes. But Turkey has strongly warned it against exploiting the gas before a settlement is reached.
Turkey has meanwhile drilled exploratory onshore oil wells on the north of the island that have shown traces of hydrocarbons, further exacerbating the tensions.
(Reporting by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Jim Loney)