(CNSNews.com) – As a dispute between Cyprus and Turkey over natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean threatens to turn ugly, the Obama administration is backing a United Nations offer to mediate.
The government of Cyprus on Wednesday rejected the U.N. offer, saying it had a sovereign right to explore for natural resources in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The offshore drilling, it said, has nothing to do with long-running U.N. negotiations to solve the bigger conflict over Cyprus, which has been divided since Turkey invaded and occupied the north after a coup in 1974.
Texas-based Noble Energy last week began exploratory drilling some 115 miles south of Cyprus. An EEZ is the area – water and seabed – extending 200 nautical miles from a coastal nation’s shore, recognized under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Angered by the drilling, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed that Turkey will dispatch “frigates, gunboats and its air force” to monitor the activity. He also warned that any energy company working with Cyprus would face Turkish sanctions.
Cypriot government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said while the republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-aligned breakaway northern enclave were taking part in the U.N. talks, “the issue of exploring and exploiting any natural resources is the sovereign right of the Cyprus Republic” and was being carried out in line with international law.
He accused Turkey of violating international law and behaving in a threatening and provocative manner. The European Union and the international community should urge Turkey to stop actions that create danger in the region, he added.
Stefanou was responding to remarks by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s envoy on Cyprus, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, who said if the two sides wished, the U.N. could play a mediating role in the gas dispute.
Cyprus’ centrist Democratic Party in a statement said Downer’s suggestion was “strange, devious, unacceptable and hiding ulterior motives.”
Media commentators on the island, meanwhile, wondered why the U.N. is not chastising Turkey for actions which Cyprus says violate the U.N. Charter.
Cyprus says neither Turkey nor the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – an entity whose 1983 declaration of independence was not recognized by any country apart from Turkey – have any say in its activities in its EEZ. (For its part, Turkey does not recognize the republic of Cyprus.)
In a new development Turkey this week sent a research vessel to begin its own seismic exploration in the area, after signing an agreement with its TRNC allies.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper reported Wednesday that the ship was surveying “in and around” the area where the Cypriot drilling is taking place, although a Turkish foreign ministry official said it would not approach the Noble Energy rig.
The official said the survey vessel was not accompanied by warships, but warships were “in the region patrolling in international waters,” the paper reported.
Turkey’s strong response is partly related to its ongoing diplomatic hostilities with Israel. The Cypriot exploration is taking place near a gas field in Israel’s EEZ, where the same Texan company, Noble Energy, has been operating since 1998. Turkish government ministers have suggested that drilling cooperation between Cyprus and Israel is directed at Turkey.
Asked Wednesday about the deepening rift between Turkey and Cyprus, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called for a “de-escalation of rhetoric” and pointed to the U.N. offer.
“We want to see a peaceful settlement of this issue under U.N. mediation,” she said. “We want to see the island’s resources shared between the communities. We are interested in this proposal for U.N. mediation of [natural gas] revenue-sharing. Overall, though, we would like to see a de-escalation of rhetoric and tension so that the UN process can move forward in a good environment.”
A senior E.U. official expressed support this week for Cyprus’ activities in its EEZ.
“We follow the developments in and around Cyprus indeed very closely,” E.U. commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fule told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“We also made it absolutely clear that it is Cyprus’ right to delimit its EEZ and to conclude treaties with third countries if they are in accordance with [E.U. law] and international treaties.”
Fule also called for “threats of use of force” to be rejected.
Although Cyprus is a member of the E.U., Turkey – a member of NATO – is not, but hopes to join the E.U. eventually.
Turkey recently threatened to freeze ties with the E.U. if the Cyprus reunification negotiations have not been finalized by the time the republic of Cyprus is due to assume the E.U.’s rotating presidency in mid-2012.