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Gas, Oil Exploration Complicates Turkey, Cyprus Talks

A helicopter ferrying workers to an offshore oil and gas rig belonging to Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. takes off from Cyprus' Limassol port, September 19, 2011.

A helicopter ferrying workers to an offshore oil and gas rig belonging to Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. takes off from Cyprus' Limassol port, September 19, 2011.

Cyprus appears to be headed for a showdown with Turkey over Nicosia's oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. The drilling may harm the ongoing reunification talks.

Relations between Turkey and Cyprus have soured increasingly after the internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government started drilling off the divided island, Monday.

The director of Cyprus's energy service, Solon Kassinis, says the process could take several months to complete.

"It's going to continue, I envisage, between two to three months - based on the difficulties we might find. But, our program is to last for 73 days," said Kassinis.

The move to push ahead with drilling has irked breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the northern sector of this divided island. They insist that any natural reserves discovered belong to both sides.

In 2008, the Cyprus government signed a production-sharing contract with American-based Noble Energy for exploration activities in an economic zone southeast of the island. The area borders Israeli waters.

In response to the drilling, Ankara has issued a barrage of strong threats against the Cyprus government, including suggestions that military aircraft, frigates and torpedo boats will move toward the drilling zone.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz describes the exploration as a provocation and is calling for an immediate halt to the work, warning that, in retaliation, Ankara will send its own research ships to begin oil and gas exploration next week.

Despite the threats, the Cyprus government has stood firm and refuses to accept Turkey's demands. Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Marcoullis says her country has a legal right to explore for oil and gas, adding that they have the backing of the international community.

"We have the full support of the international community on this: that Cyprus is a sovereign member state, whether the Republic of Turkey likes it or not - or acknowledges this reality or not - but we are a fully-fledged member of the international community, the United Nations, the European Union and, as a sovereign member state, we have entered into agreements and, in the particular case, we have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which by the way Turkey has not," Marcoullis said.

The real fear is that the drilling program could endanger the survival of the faltering U.N.-sponsored peace talks between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders.

After two-years of dialogue, there still remains little indication of any fruitful progress. In recent months, the U.N. has expressed concern and some impatience at the situation and urged that greater effort be made.

Fearful that the exploration issue could interfere with the talks, U.N. envoy Lisa Buttenheim insists the issue is not directly related to the peace process and has not been discussed in the talks.

"It should be understood that natural resources, if they are discovered, would be for the benefit of all Cypriots, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, under the framework of a federal united Cyprus," said Buttenheim. "The United Nations would appeal to all involved to resolve this matter in a peaceful manner and look beyond the issues to the potential benefits that a united Cyprus can bring to Cypriots and to the region."

Both leaders have reasserted their determination to continue talks to seek a peaceful solution, but neither has ventured any proposal for compromise on the drilling issue. Instead, they point the finger at each other for the increased tension in the region.

Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the island in response to a coup in Nicosia, backed by the Greek military government then in power in Athens.

The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey.