NEW YORK, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Cypriot President Demetris Christofias said on Thursday the east Mediterranean island nation could open up more gas exploration drilling within a year, a move that likely further antagonizes rival Turkey.
“This is the plan. The plan is to open new (exploration blocks). We have only one now,” Christofias told Reuters after speaking to the Cypriot community at New York University.
“I could not assure you when exactly,” he said, adding when pressed that it could occur in the next 12 months.
“Maybe before. I don’t exclude this,” he said.
Earlier Christofias told the United Nations General Assembly that Cyprus would be willing to share the benefits of revenue from any gas find with Turkish Cypriots even before a peace deal on the ethnically divided island is reached.
“It is for the benefit of Turkish Cypriots as well,” he said, reiterating a point made in his UN speech on Thursday.
Rhetoric over ownership of possible oil and gas deposits has sharpened after a deterioration of relations between Turkey and Israel, the discovery of massive gas fields by Israel and plans by Cyprus to drill as early as next month.
Israel and the Greek-speaking government of Cyprus are exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean.
Cyprus is working with Noble Energy (NBL.N) to explore the area that sits adjacent to the massive natural gas field claimed by Israel on the southeast coast of the island.
EU-member Cyprus split during a 1974 Turkish invasion after a brief Greek-inspired coup in which Turkey took control of the island’s north. Ankara maintains a military presence in Northern Cyprus and says natural resources found offshore belong to both communities.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan termed the offshore drilling by estranged ally Israel and Cyprus as “madness.”
Turkey signed a deal with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state on Wednesday in the hopes of paving the way for offshore gas exploration. The move by Ankara escalated regional tension over energy reserves as it came one day after the Greek Cypriot government said drilling had begun on the gas well.
Erdogan threatened to use naval escorts for oil and gas exploration vessels heading toward the region, if necessary, as part of efforts to explore the region’s natural resources.
Cyprus is represented in the European Union by its internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government. Cyprus has no diplomatic relations with Turkey, which has yet to respond to calls from the European Union to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic.
Asked if he was afraid of Erdogan’s naval escort statement, Christofias said no. Rather it was “a matter of justice” that his government was exercising its sovereign rights.
The opening of new exploration blocks could mean other companies have the opportunity to bid for exploration contracts. So far Noble remains the only one.
“With Noble we work well. Maybe with Noble, maybe, and with other companies. A consortium of companies.... So we shall see,” Christofias said. (Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Nicosia; Editing by Vicki Allen)