March 9, 2018 / 8:48 PM / 7 months ago

Turkish Cypriots vow to launch gas search unless Greek side pulls back

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Turkish Cypriots will launch their own exploration for oil and gas around Cyprus if Greek Cypriots persist with their own plans, their foreign minister said on Friday, as an uneasy standoff lingered over offshore resources.

Greek Cypriots, who run Cyprus’s internationally recognised government, have licensed several offshore blocks to multinationals for oil and gas exploration. But Italy’s Eni (ENI.MI) abandoned a scheduled drill last month because of the presence of Turkish military vessels. A division of ExxonMobil (XOM.N) is due to launch an exploration attempt this year.

“Either we will do it together - by discussing, agreeing and moving together - or things will stop, or, we (Turkish Cypriots) will do the same thing: we will start exploiting and drilling as well,” said Kudret Ozersay, foreign minister of Northern Cyprus, a breakaway state recognised only by Turkey.

Turkey has vowed to prevent what it sees as a unilateral move by Greek Cypriots, but EU member Cyprus has shown no signs of backing down. Brussels has urged Turkey to avoid threats and refrain from actions that could damage relations with the bloc.

Asked whether the dispute could escalate, Ozersay said diplomacy would be the first tool: “We aim at cooling down the waters, not warming them up.”

“For that reason in the most recent (incident) we did not use force. We did not even demonstrate force. There was deterrence there,” he said, adding the Turkish Cypriot side had pursued diplomacy before then.

Torn apart in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a Greek-inspired coup, seeds of division were sown earlier, when a power-sharing arrangement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots crumbled amid violence just three years after the former British colony gained independence. Greek Cypriots were left running the internationally recognised government.

“HISTORIC RIGHTS”

“Our argument on the issue of maritime areas is not based on geography,” Ozersay said, to an observation that Cyprus has only licensed maritime exploration areas lying south of the island, where it exercises effective control, and not to the north.

“It is based on historic rights and the rights deriving from the partnership republic,” he said from his office, less than 5 km (3 miles) from a checkpoint where hundreds of Cypriots cross daily between the two sides.

“The thing is, not only the Turkish Cypriot side, but also the international community and the Greek Cypriot side accepts and acknowledges that we are the co-owners of those hydrocarbon resources,” Ozersay said.

Greek Cypriots have repeatedly said a peace deal would allow both communities to benefit from any offshore resources, and have baulked at including the issue in reunification discussions. But peace talks collapsed last year, with no sign of resuming soon.

The talks ended primarily over a dispute on the role Turkey would play in a post-reunification Cyprus. Ankara has more than 25,000 troops in northern Cyprus, and Greek Cypriots insist their departure be integral to any deal.

Although the sides have agreed, in principle, to unite Cyprus as a bicommunal bizonal federation based on political equality, they do not have the same interpretation of what that means, Ozersay said.

“We don’t understand the same thing from the same sentence. We are repeating the same sentence, but we don’t understand the same thing. That’s the problem.”

Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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