ANKARA, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Turkey said on Tuesday it was exploring for gas in an offshore zone where Cyprus started drilling last week, a provocative step in a battle over Mediterranean resources that overshadowed the resumption of peace talks for the divided island.
The question of who has the right to tap what may be the world’s biggest natural gas find of the past decade has added sudden urgency to long delayed efforts to settle the conflict over Cyprus, divided since 1974 into Greek and Turkish enclaves.
The internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot government says it has a sovereign right to drill. Turkey, the only country to recognise a separate Turkish Cypriot government in the north of the island, says the island’s status must be resolved first.
In Nicosia, the island’s divided capital, Greek Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot President Dervis Eroglu resumed peace talks on Tuesday after a 10-day break for U.N. general assembly deliberations.
The two sides are racing to make progress on complex reunification negotiations before a scheduled encounter with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the end of October. The hydrocarbons controversy had not come up in the talks, a source close to consultations told Reuters.
Last week, U.S.-based Noble Energy started drilling offshore on behalf of Cyprus in an area termed Block 12, south of the island. Turkey has pledged to drill for gas on behalf of Turkish Cypriots unless the Greek Cypriots stop.
“If the Greek Cypriots agree to stop, we’ll stop too. But if they insist on proceeding, they know very well Turkey’s attitude,” Turkey’s minister for European Affairs, Egemen Bagis, visiting the Turkish side of the island, said on Tuesday.
“We have to warn against Greek Cypriot provocation. The resources are not going anywhere, so why are they being used to block [Cyprus reunification] negotiations?”
Israel is also drilling nearby, and the issue has emerged as a further bone of contention between Turkey and the Jewish state. Long Israel’s rare Mideast ally, Ankara has downgraded ties in recent weeks over Israel’s refusal to apologise for a deadly raid last year on a Turkish aid flotilla.
Last week, Turkey and Turkish Cyprus signed their own pact outlining maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, paving the way for gas exploration. Turkey said it would protect any research vessel with warships, raising the prospect of an armed stand-off on the high seas.
On Sept. 23, Turkey dispatched its only research vessel, the Piri Reis, to the eastern Mediterranean.
“Piri Reis, escorted by warships, has started research in the same area where Greek Cypriots are exploring,” Omer Celik, Vice Chairman of the ruling AK Party who oversees foreign affairs, said on Twitter.
“We have shown clearly to everyone that we will not allow the eastern Mediterranean to become a Greek Cyprus-Israel goal,” Celik said in another message.
The Turkish Cypriot prime minister had said overnight that the vessel had begun exploring, but did not say precisely where. Greek Cypriot sources have said the Turkish vessel is about 80 km (50 miles) from where the Greek Cypriots are drilling.
Turkey’s Navy has made no announcement regarding the deployment of warships in the area. It was not immediately possible to independently verify the presence of warships. A diplomatic source said it was “my understanding that the survey boat is unaccompanied”.
Turkey invaded north Cyprus in 1974 after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup. It maintains a heavy military presence in the north of the island, split by a ceasefire line patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers. United Nations-sponsored peace talks between the two sides were launched in 2008 but progress has been slow. (Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Nicosia and Simon Bahceli)