Turkey approves gas exploration in Cypriot waters
* Move set to fuel existing row over energy reserves
* One area in contested region near Greek territory
* Turkey began exploration in north Cyprus last week
ANKARA, April 30 (Reuters) - Turkey's cabinet has given approval for Turkey's state-run oil firm to carry out oil and gas exploration in six offshore areas around the island of Cyprus, drawing condemnation from the Cypriot government which lays claim to the territory.
The move could escalate an ongoing row between Turkey and the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus over who has the right to tap hydrocarbon deposits in the eastern Mediterranean.
Approval was given for the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to explore in six areas in Cypriot waters to the north, west and east of the island, according to Turkey's official gazette.
The gazette did not specify the exact coordinates of the areas, but said they were outside Turkish waters - three areas off Turkey's southern coast of Adana, one off Antalya, one off Hatay and another off the southwestern coast of Mugla.
The Cypriot government condemned the announcement, saying the areas were within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
"The decision by Turkey to grant oil licences in areas which come under the EEZ of the Republic of Cyprus are a continuation of her actions which violate international law, and, specifically, the law of the sea," government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said.
"The government of the Republic of Cyprus condemns these actions and the provocations of Turkey and is taking all indicative action to defend the country's sovereign rights," he said in a written statement.
The announcement could also strain relations with Greece. Turkey's Mugla province is located where the Aegean and Mediterranean seas converge, a highly-contested area where dozens of Greek islands lie only several kilometres off the Turkish coastline.
Tensions resurfaced last September when Cyprus began drilling in a southeast offshore area adjoining a gas field in Israeli waters reputed to be the world's largest find in the past decade.
Turkey contests a Cypriot-Israeli accord signed in 2010 to create exclusive economic zones in the waters between them.
It also argues that Cyprus should not be exploiting natural resources until a settlement is reached between the Cypriot government and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state for the reunification of the island, and that any revenues should benefit both communities.
Cyprus has said that any money earned from a gas find would be used for the good of both sides regardless of whether a settlement had been reached.
However, in retaliation, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot administration signed their own continental shelf agreement in September, permitting TPAO to start exploration north of the island.
TPAO also began drilling in an onshore site on the north of the island last week near the town of Trikomo during a ceremony attended by Turkey's energy minister. Cyprus and its close ally Greece criticised the move.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military invaded the island after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then in power in Athens.
Turkey still keeps about 30,000 troops in the north and is the only nation which recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Both sides have made little progress in negotiations since the United Nations persuaded them to renew talks late last year and the dispute is one of the main stumbling blocks in Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Turkey has said if there was no solution by July 1 when Cyprus takes over the European Union presidency, it would suspend dialogue with the presidency until it passes to another EU member in 2013. (Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Nicosia; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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