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Turkey Urges Neighbors to Curb Hostilities

Turkey is warning Iran and Azerbaijan against any escalation in the dispute over Caspian Sea oil exploration rights. The Turkish warning follow threats from Azerbaijan that it will open fire on Iranian warplanes overflying areas of the inland sea it regards as its own.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on Monday urged its neighbors, Iran and Azerbaijan, to solve their differences through dialogue, not threats of violence.

The Turkish call comes amid mounting tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran over territorial rights in the oil rich Caspian Sea. The war of words between the two countries escalated Monday, after Azerbaijan's Army Chief of Staff said his forces would open fire on Iranian war planes that violate air space over territory claimed by Azerbaijian.

Azerbaijani officials say Iranian warplanes have been overflying their territory in recent days in an apparent attempt to deter Azerbaijan from further oil exploration and production activity in the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan and Iran remain at loggerheads over the Caspian Sea, which has huge reserves of oil and gas. Last month, an Iranian gunship and a military plane ordered two Azerbaijani research vessels hired by the oil giant BP-Amoco to retreat from an offshore Caspian oilfield, which both Iran and Azerbaijan claim as their own.

The dispute over Caspian exploration and production rights began in the early 1990's, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The five states bordering the Caspian Sea - Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran - remain divided over the legal status of the inland sea.

Turkmenistan and Iran say the Caspian Sea is a lake and should be divided into five equal national sectors. The remaining Caspian neighbors say it should be treated as a sea. Under that scenario, Turkmenistan and Iran would each get less than the 20 percent of the sea which they claim as their own, because part of the sea would then be considered international waters.

Iran and Turkey have been locked in a fierce battle to extend their influence over Azerbaijan and the land-locked Muslim states in Central Asia. Analysts say the country which succeeds in becoming the main transit route for the region's vast oil and gas reserves will be the victor in that battle.

Turkey has close ethnic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan. The two countries are also bound by a military cooperation and training agreement.

The United States is backing construction of a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline to carry offshore Azerbaijani crude oil from the capital Baku to loading terminals at Turkey's southern Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.