NICOSIA – Cyprus has issued a NAVTEX reserving areas of its waters for drilling licensed to international companies, including a Texas business, at the same time Turkish warships were blocking an Italian firm from reaching the disputed spot.
The order was for parts of Blocks 3 and 13 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which Turkey said it owns and as it doesn’t recognize the Laws of the Sea nor even the legitimate government.
Turkey, which has unlawfully occupied the northern third of the island since a 1974 invasion, has also demanded a share of any potentially lucrative finds and has ramped up tension in the wake of failed unity talks that collapsed last year.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades walked away from negotiations in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana after Turkey insisted on keeping an army on the island at the same time it wants to join the European Union of which Cyprus is a member.
Turkey, which doesn’t recognize Cyprus and bars its ships and planes, also wanted the right to militarily intervene, sinking the talks and ratcheting up tension as it sent in the warships and had sent an energy research vessel into the same waters to look for oil and gas.
The Phileleftheros news site said the Cypriot NAVTEX said the Navy would conduct a live fire exercise in the general vicinity of the Turkish warships, escalating the tension, and as Turkey is raising fears of a conflict with Greece over the disputed rocky islets of Imia.
The reserved area covers roughly 600 square kilometers (231.66 square miles) and adjoins the region Turkey reserved for exercises until February 22.
Turkey’s notice includes parts of the island’s EEZ and has been used as a justification not to allow the Saipem 1200 drillship chartered by Italian energy giant ENI, or any other vessel for that matter, to approach Block 3.
Turkey said its NAVTEX, which expires Feb. 22, violates international law and is legally invalid although it doesn’t recognize the international law it cited.
Cyprus said that part of its EEZ belongs to its continental shelf and accused Cyprus of unilaterally exploring for gas and of ignoring the rights of Turks living in the occupied territories.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the presence of the warships, telling lawmakers from his party that companies involved in the gas venture should not “step out of line.”
“We recommend that foreign companies don’t allow themselves to be an instrument of issues that surpass their limits and strength, by trusting the Greek Cypriot side,” Erdogan said. “Their show of strength lasts only until they see our ships and our planes,” he said.
Turkey opposes the drilling, which it says disregards the rights of Turkish Cypriots. It also claims as its own part of the area Cyprus has designated for exploratory drilling.
The Cypriot government says it has a sovereign right to drill, and that if the search is successful, any income would be shared equitably if the island is reunified.
Anastasiades wouldn’t comment publicly but said there shouldn’t be any alarm from the public about a military conflict or confrontation.
“There’s no reason for anyone to worry,” he told reporters in the capital, Nicosia. “Actions are being taken in such a way so as to avert any kind of crisis.”
He got backing from the United States, whose relations with Turkey and Erdogan are fraying and as Turkey is engaged in military action in Syria.
“The United States recognizes the right of the Republic of Cyprus to develop its resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone,” the US State Department stated, adding it would stand by its support for Cyprus’ EEZ.
A State Department spokesperson told the Cyprus Mail that the US continues to believe that “the island’s oil and gas resources, like all of its resources, should be equitably shared between both communities in the context of an overall settlement,” over the dispute.
“We discourage any actions or rhetoric that increase tensions in the region,” he added.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)