February 11, 2018 / 7:17 PM / 8 days ago

Standoff in high seas as Cyprus says Turkey blocks gas drill ship

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cyprus on Sunday accused the Turkish military of obstructing a ship contracted by Italian oil company Eni from approaching an area to explore for natural gas, highlighting tensions over offshore resources in the east Mediterranean.

A spokesman for Eni said on Sunday the Saipem 12000 drill ship had been heading from a location southwest of Cyprus towards an area southeast of the island on Friday when it was stopped by Turkish military ships and told not to continue because of military activities in the destination area.

Turkey, which does not have diplomatic relations with Cyprus, claims that certain areas in Cyprus’s offshore maritime zone, known as an EEZ, fall into the jurisdiction of Turkey or that of Turkish Cypriots.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said Turkey had violated international law by blocking the ship and Cyprus would take “necessary steps”, without elaborating, although he seemed keen to avoid exacerbating the situation.

“From our side, our actions reflect the necessity of avoiding anything which could escalate (the situation), without of course overlooking the violation of international law perpetrated by Turkey,” Anastasiades told journalists in Nicosia.

A spokesman for the Italian foreign ministry confirmed that Turkish authorities were not allowing the ship to proceed towards its destination.

Italy is following the matter “at the highest level through its diplomats in Nicosia and Ankara ... and following all possible diplomatic steps to resolve the question,” the spokesman said.

A spokesperson for Italy’s state-controlled Eni said the ship, which was traveling after reporting a natural gas discovery in another prospect within Cypriot maritime boundaries on Feb. 8, would remain stationary until the issue was resolved.

“The vessel has prudently executed the orders and will remain in position pending an evolution of the situation,” the spokesperson said.

The ship was heading to Block 3 of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone, ENI said.

Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs, in a statement on Sunday did not make any mention of obstructing the Eni ship but said exploration of Block 3 was a unilateral move by Greek Cypriots that violated the sovereign rights of Turkish Cypriots on the ethnically-split island and Greek Cypriots were jeopardizing security and stability in the region.

Greek Cypriots, who are exploring for natural gas, run Cyprus’s internationally recognized government. Turkish Cypriots run a breakaway state recognized only by Ankara in north Cyprus and say resources around the island belong to them too.

Cyprus’s state radio reported senior officials from Eni would hold talks in Nicosia on Monday.

The island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Peace talks collapsed last year.

Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs said it would continue to protect Turkey’s own rights and interests on its continental shelf, and those of Turkish Cypriots.

“We also make use of this opportunity to strongly emphasize our expectation that companies centered in third countries refrain from supporting ... this unconstructive Greek Cypriot attitude which also constitutes a major obstacle to the settlement of the Cyprus issue,” it said.

Reporting By Michele Kambas, additional reporting by Gavin Jones in Rome, Stephen Jewkes in Milan and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Susan Fenton and David Evans

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