Turkish navy to escort offshore energy search

September 19, 2011 - 7:55 AM

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey escalated a dispute with Cyprus over oil and gas drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, saying Monday that it would send warships to protect its claims to resources off the coast of the divided island.

Cyprus was divided into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north after a 1974 Turkish invasion. The southern government said in August that it would begin exploratory drilling for oil and gas, prompting strong protests from Turkey, which doesn't recognize the Greek Cypriot administration and says drilling can derail long-running talks to reunify the island.

Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said if Cyprus does not halt the planned drilling, his country would send out its own research ship within a week and the Turkish navy would "obviously" escort it.

"This work will be carried out together with the escort," Yildiz told a group of reporters. "There will be no turning back on this issue."

Turkey has been pursuing an increasingly muscular foreign policy since the reelection of its religiously rooted government, expelling the Israeli ambassador this month over a deadly raid on a Turkish aid convoy and pledging to send its navy to escort future convoys to the Gaza Strip.

Turkey has also renewed threats to freeze all ties with the EU if Cyprus is allowed to assume the presidency of the 27-nation group before a settlement that would allow the Turkish north to be a legitimate representative of the reunified state.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told Turkish Cypriot Bayrak television this week that "a real crisis will erupt between the EU and Turkey" if the Greek Cypriot government takes over the six month rotating presidency in July, 2012.

"We will at that point freeze our relations with the EU," Atalay said.

Cyprus last week said it had political backing of the international community for the search for mineral deposits inside its exclusive economic zone, which is close to sizable gas finds within Israeli waters. Houston-based firm Noble Energy Inc. has already sent a rig to the area.

"Our wish is that we do not reach such a point, and that the work they are undertaking with Noble comes to an end before it even begins," Yildiz told reporters.

Turkey had discussed the issue with U.S. officials, but not with the company itself, Yildiz said, adding the risks for the company are considerable.

"I do not think they will undertake such a work in such a risky area, from a technical and a feasibility point of view," said Yildiz.

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Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report.