Turkey, Cyprus seek to defuse oil exploration row

ANKARA (AFP)–Turkey and Cyprus have sought to cool a growing row over the island’s oil and gas exploration rights, with denials that Ankara had stepped up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. "We already have ships constantly on patrol in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. We do not need to send new ships," Turkish army chief Yasar Buyukanit told reporters here Thursday just before meeting Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Gul also brushed aside a television report of ship movemen’s, saying that the Turkish navy was carrying out only "normal and planned" activity in the area. The private NTV news channel reported earlier that Turkey had sent an unspecified number of warships to international waters off the divided island in retaliation for oil and gas exploration deals the internationally-recognized Cyprus government signed with Egypt and Lebanon. The channel later said that Turkish warships in the region had been instructed to also begin patrols as of Thursday in areas outside their regular field of duty. The measure had been agreed by the foreign ministry and the general staff in order to convey Ankara’s displeasure over the oil and gas deals, it added. An official from the Cypriot foreign ministry initially described Turkey’s behavior as a "provocation" and said the government was closely following Turkish military movement in the area. But later Thursday, Cypriot government spokesman Christodoulos Pashardes said that reports of warships being sent to Cyprus were "inaccurate". "What happened is that a Turkish corvette, coming from the sea area of Rhodes, yesterday (Wednesday) moved along the south coast of Cyprus, outside the territorial waters of the Cyprus Republic," he said in a brief statement. The ship has already sailed back to base in the southern Turkish province of Mersin, Pashardes added. In a harshly worded statement Tuesday, the Turkish foreign ministry warned Egypt and Lebanon to delay the oil and gas deals which it said infringed the rights of the island’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet. "Turkey is determined to protect its rights and interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and will not allow attempts that would erode them," the statement said, declaring the deals invalid. Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, whose Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognized only by Ankara, said his community would not give up on what he called its exploration rights. "Just as we have not given up on Cyprus, we will not give up on our rights to its natural resources. We are equal with the Greek Cypriots on Cyprus," Talat told reporters during a visit to Istanbul, the Anatolia news agency reported. The Cyprus government signed an agreement with Lebanon on January 17 for the delineation of an undersea border to facilitate future oil and gas exploration. Similar accords were struck with Egypt last year. "We have every right to defend our statehood and to exercise our sovereign right as a full member of the European Union and the United Nations," Cypriot Commerce Minister Antonis Michaelides told state radio Wednesday in response to Turkey’s objections. Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey seized its northern third in response to a short-lived Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece. Turkey does not recognize the Greek Cypriot government which controls the southern two-thirds of the island, but instead acknowledges the TRNC, where it keeps some 40,000 troops.

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