Turkish Cypriots seek end to natural gas dispute

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Northern Cyprus wants to resolve a dispute over natural gas drilling with Greek Cypriots to avoid the possibility of its leading to wide instability, the breakaway state’s deputy prime minister said after visits with Trump administration officials and U.S. lawmakers.

“We believe this is an unfair situation ... which may put the stability of the region at risk,” Kudret Ozersay, who is also foreign minister of Northern Cyprus, said in an interview last week. Ozersay was on his first diplomatic visit to the United States in his current position for Northern Cyprus, which only Turkey recognizes as a country.

Cyprus is thought to have rich deposits of offshore natural gas, but the island is divided and tensions are rising about the drilling.

Cyprus was split by a Turkish invasion in 1974 that followed a Greek-inspired coup. Northern Cyprus is now a Turkish Cypriot state of about 300,000 people.

Greek Cypriots, who run Cyprus’ internationally recognized government, have licensed several offshore blocks to multinational energy companies for exploration. They have said a peace deal would allow both communities to benefit from any offshore resources, but have balked at including the issue in settlement talks. Peace talks collapsed in 2017.

Next month Greek Cypriots and Exxon Mobil XOM.N are due to announce the results of offshore natural gas exploration.

Ozersay said the terms of drilling are unacceptable because they allow Greek Cypriots to profit from drilling even before a settlement is reached, while Turkish Cypriots can only profit after such an agreement. There is a “window of opportunity” for the two sides to agree terms to drilling that are acceptable to Northern Cyprus, said Ozersay, who talked with U.S. officials to pressure for change.

Last year Cyprus accused the Turkish military of blocking the Saipem 12000 drill ship, contracted by Italian company Eni ENI.MI from exploring for natural gas. Turkey claimed that certain areas of Cyprus's offshore exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, fall under the jurisdiction of Turkey or that of Turkish Cypriots.

The move was noticed by Washington. Local media reported in June that Wess Mitchell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said Washington had been clear in its messaging with Turkish officials that “harassment of drilling vessels in the (EEZ) is not something that we will allow to go unnoticed or speak up about.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting with Ozersay.

Ozersay said Northern Cyprus has cooperated with international bodies to extradite individuals listed on Interpol, the international police body, and wants to continue the efforts, a hint that the breakaway state should be recognized for its efforts. “To the extent possible we will try to implement the rules of international law and we will be ready to cooperate with international actors and organizations,” he said.

An expert on European energy politics said Northern Cyprus was trying to build momentum while President Donald Trump expects warmer relations with Turkey. “Clearly the Trump administration is trying to improve relations with Turkey, thus it is logical that Northern Cyprus is trying to leverage a deal,” said Brenda Shaffer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russia and and East European Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Ozersay also met with U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen and Gerald Connolly, both Democrats, and Steve Chabot and John Curtis, both Republicans. The lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment about their meetings.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Leslie Adler