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24th Aug 2019

Cyprus-Turkey gas dispute escalates

  • Map of Mediterranean Sea by Ottoman-era cartographer, Piri Reis, after whom the Turkish gas ship was named (Photo: Flavius Belisarius)

Turkish vessel the Piri Reis has set sail to drill for gas in waters claimed by EU member Cyprus amid talk of a potential new military confrontation after 35 years of peace.

Turkish TV showed the ship leaving port of Urle on Friday (23 September) to look for gas reserves in an offshore field beside the largely unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

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The move comes after a harsh exchange of words between the two sides at the UN in New York on Thursday.

Referring to related Turkish naval exercises in the area, Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christophias told the UN assembly that Turkey's actions are "provocative and a real danger for further complications in the region ... I wish, from this esteemed podium, to condemn this illegal act which constitutes a provocation."

Referring to Greek Cypriot oil exploration in TRNC-disputed waters, which began last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "We expect all the concerned parties to work actively to make sure the Greek Cypriot administration halts these activities, which can lead to tensions not only on the island but in the entire region ... Otherwise, we will do what is necessary."

EU institutions are monitoring the situation but declined to comment on Friday, after earlier in the week taking Cyprus' side and telling Turkey to back off.

Turkey's action is highly unusual for an EU candidate country and indicates the level of bad will created by the fact EU-Turkey accession talks ground to a halt 18 months ago, in part due to a Cypriot veto.

Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Aric also talked tough with press in Brussels on Thursday.

"Since we are acting within [maritime] law, we can accompany the exploration with our navy and our air force. We don't have the idea of fighting. We are just defending our rights," he said.

Noting that Cyprus and its main EU ally Greece have been weakened by the financial crisis, Aric said it would be "unethical" to take advantage of the situation.

But he could not resist a moment of schadenfreude: "We remember a few months ago, after the explosion in the arms depot, the Greek Cypriots needed electricity and were in darkness ... In the end they took electricity [from the TRNC]. But they have not paid for it yet because they don't know to whom to send the invoice. It's both comical and it's food for thought about the situation."

Turkey's decision to confront Cyprus and the EU comes at the same time as its diplomatic row with Israel over Palestine and its bombing campaign against Kurdish separatists in what amounts to a show of strength in the region.

Asked if Turkey's economic growth is a factor in its new foreign policy, Aric said: "It is certain that our political power has increased ... We are not a country that will say Yes to any demand."

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