ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday warned Cyprus not to “overstep the mark” in the eastern Mediterranean, after Greek Cypriots accused the Turkish military of obstructing an Italian vessel exploring for natural gas over the weekend.
Turkey, which does not have diplomatic ties with Cyprus, says some areas of Cyprus’s offshore maritime zone fall under the jurisdiction of Turkey or Turkish Cypriots, underscoring tensions in the broader eastern Mediterranean over competing claims for offshore resources.
“Our warships and security units are following all developments in the region with the instruction to do whatever is necessary,” Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party in parliament.
“We warn those who overstep the mark in Cyprus and the Aegean,” he said. “They are standing up to us until they see our army, ships and planes,” he said, comparing the situation in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus with the Syrian region of Afrin where Turkey is waging an offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades declined to comment on Erdogan’s remarks, but said there was no cause for worry.
Cyprus is one of several states, also including Israel and Lebanon, racing to tap gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean.
Greek Cypriots run Cyprus’s internationally recognized government, while Turkish Cypriots have a breakaway state in the north - recognized only by Ankara - and say resources around the island belong to them too.
The area where the drill ship was headed - Block 3 of Cyprus’s economic zone - is also claimed by Turkish Cypriots. Turkey’s state-owned oil company also plans to search for oil and gas off Cyprus, ethnically partitioned between its Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
Saipem is contracted by Italy’s state-controlled Eni, whose officials have confirmed the ship was stopped by Turkish ships on Friday afternoon because of a military exercise in the area.
On Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano told his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, that he wanted a solution to the standoff “that is in line with international law”, a statement from Italy’s Foreign Ministry said.
The two men spoke at an anti-Islamic State coalition meeting in Kuwait and agreed “to preserve the necessary climate of trust for possible further projects in the energy sector,” the statement said.
Cyprus has seemed keen to downplay the standoff, which appears to be the worst escalation of simmering tensions since the island struck a small quantity of natural gas in 2011.
“There is no cause for anyone to be concerned. This is being handled in a manner to avert any possible crisis which could create problems either to the economy or to the state,” President Anastasiades told reporters in Nicosia.
The European Union on Monday called on Turkey to avoid threats and “refrain from any actions that might damage good neighborly” ties.
Eni and France’s Total, partners in a Cyprus venture, announced last week finding a promising gas field off Cyprus. They said the find looked geologically similar to the Zohr field off Egypt, which holds an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet of gas, the largest field ever found in the Mediterranean.
Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Peace talks collapsed last year.
Reporting by Ercan Gurses and Daren Butler, and Michele Kambas in Nicosia, additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome,; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans, Larry King, William Maclean
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