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Tensions Flair Between Cyprus and Turkey

Greek Cyprus has accused Turkey of harassing two Panamanian-flagged vessels in international waters over the past two weeks. Nathan Morley has more for VOA from Nicosia.

According to local media reports, one of the ships was searching for oil off the south coast of the island when it was forced to cease operations by a Turkish naval vessel on Monday.

It is the second such incident in two weeks.

Turkey has insisted that the exploration was encroaching on its continental shelf, while Cyprus said the incidents occurred in a maritime zone that it has rights over.

The dispute has come as little surprise to many political commentators, some of whom have long predicted that oil exploration by either side would stoke tensions in the region.

James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Observatory, told VOA News that such incidents will not be well received at the EU, which Turkey desperately wishes to join.

"I think the European Union will be extremely worried about this and would regard it in a very bad way," he said. "Obviously Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, so the EU is going to want to see Turkey playing a very productive and positive role," he said.

The fallout has come at a very delicate time, as the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in Cyprus are engaged in the early stages of U.N.-brokered peace talks to try and re-unite the island.

Ker-Lindsay said that the fallout from the exploration incident has the potential to harm the talks.

"Something like this is going to serve to make these [talks] even more fraught and serves to potentially damage the process, so I do think there will be a lot of concern about this," he said.

Turkish Cypriots in northern Cyprus have strongly objected to any exploration by the Greek Cypriots and said that any natural reserves discovered belong to both sides.

A statement issued at the start of 2008 by the Turkish Cypriots declared that any attempt by the Greek-Cypriot side to sign agreements with neighboring countries would be considered unacceptable.

The Greek-Cypriot administration signed agreements with Egypt in 2005 and Lebanon in 2007 delineating their sea boundaries to facilitate future underwater oil and gas exploration.

George Christofides, the director of the Office of the Permanent Secretary at the Cyprus Foreign Ministry told VOA the incident was a major concern for the government in Nicosia.

"It is of major concern to the government; first of all it reaffirms Turkish policy, which is again a policy of aggression I would say against the interests of the Republic of Cyprus," he said.

Some studies suggest there could be undersea reserves of up to eight billion barrels of crude oil off Cyprus.