ANKARA, Sept 21 Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan described offshore gas drilling by estranged ally Israel
and Cyprus as "madness" on Wednesday, raising the stakes in a
confrontation over potentially huge deposits in the eastern
The quarrel over gas has escalated in recent weeks, just as
relations between Turkey and Israel abruptly broke down over
Israel's refusal to apologise for a deadly raid on a Turkish
flotilla last year.
Israel and the Greek-speaking government of Cyprus are
exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean, and Israel has
laid claim to a massive deepwater gas field discovered in 2009.
Turkey, increasingly assertive in the region under Erdogan,
disputes Israeli and Cypriot offshore territorial claims and
says Cyprus should not exploit resources until it resolves a
stand-off with its breakaway Turkish-speaking north.
Long one of Israel's few friends in the Middle East, Turkey
downgraded diplomatic and trade ties with the Jewish state this
month after Israel refused to apologise for killing nine Turks
in a 2010 raid on a Turkish flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip.
"The Greek Cypriot administration and Israel are engaging in
oil exploration madness in the Mediterranean," Turkish state
news agency Anatolian quoted Erdogan as telling Turkish
journalists in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly
"Actually, the Greek Cypriot administration's drilling
activity is nothing but sabotage of the negotiation process
between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots," he added.
The drilling controversy has added a new and potentially
explosive element to a dispute over Cyprus which has defied
mediation for decades.
The island was split by a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a
brief Greek inspired coup. Turkey is the only country to
recognise a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north, where
it maintains a military presence.
Turkey has said it would carry out its own energy surveys
with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state -- under escort by its
war ships if necessary -- if Cyprus pressed ahead with drilling.
Erdogan again emphasised Turkish military prowess on
Wednesday: "Our assault boats and frigates are already in the
region," Anatolian quoted him as saying.
The United Nations is trying to unite Cyprus as a federation
and wants talks to conclude by mid 2012. The European Commission
has called for Cyprus and Turkey to show restraint in the gas
row and work toward a settlement on the island.
Turkey's new tension with Israel makes the issue even more
explosive at a time when the Arab Spring revolts are reshaping
the balance of power in the region. Erdogan said last week that
Turkish warships could be sent to the eastern Mediterranean at
any time and Israel could not do whatever it wants there.
Texas-based Noble Energy which is carrying out the
drilling operations for Cyprus, has been conducting offshore
drills in the eastern Mediterranean for Israel since 1998.
Cyprus has said it will block negotiations Turkey began in
2005 to join the European Union if Ankara continues to oppose
its gas exploration. Turkey has said it will freeze relations
with the EU Presidency if Cyprus is given the rotating role next
July before a settlement over the island is reached.
(Writing by Jonathon Burch and Ece Toksabay)