Turkish Cypriots vow to stand firm in island gas dispute


Nicosia (AFP)

After a standoff in the Mediterranean that saw Turkish warships force back an Italian rig, Turkish Cypriot authorities insist no resources can be tapped around the divided island unless they are on-board.

The confrontation over gas deposits has seen tensions soar between the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot authorities -- just as the two sides are weighing up a return to peace talks that collapsed last year.

EU member Republic of Cyprus has been hunting for energy offshore for years -- and has exploration deals with majors including Italy's Eni, France's Total and ExxonMobil in the United States.

That quest has long sparked opposition from Ankara and the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state it backs on the north of the island -- culminating in Ankara blocking an Eni exploration vessel last month.

Now as ExxonMobil gears up to start its own research in the island's waters ahead of planned exploratory drilling later this year, the Turkish Cypriots insist that they need to be consulted if any resources are to be exploited.

"If the will of the Turkish Cypriots is not taken into consideration any economic activity will not be successful and cannot proceed. As you have seen the drilling was not done," Turkish Cypriot foreign minister Kudret Ozersay told AFP.

"We will not allow either the Greek Cypriots or the companies to unilaterally act on our behalf."

- 'Kind of opportunity' -

The spike in tensions over energy comes at a delicate time as the two sides consider whether to restart UN-backed efforts to reunify the island after they broke down in acrimony last July.

Cyprus has been split between the internationally recognised republic in the south and the Turkish-backed north ever since Ankara invaded in 1974 in response to a coup inspired by Athens.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities are seen by their Greek Cypriot counterparts as pawns of Ankara.

While the gas dispute has appeared to push the communities further apart, Ozersay insisted it could help the Turkish Cypriots press the other side on with negotiations -- either to resolve the broader conflict or agree a separate deal on sharing resources.

"I see the existing circumstances as a kind of opportunity," he said. "If energy companies or states via energy companies can give the right message to the Greek Cypriot community."

Should that fail, Ozersay warned, then the Turkish Cypriot side could look to press on with its own exploration and drilling in the disputed waters.

- 'Very dangerous strategy' -

The jockeying appears to be a high-risk gamble that could well backfire.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades pledged ahead of elections that saw him win a new term in February that he wanted to restart peace efforts quickly.

Now the rhetoric has hardened and he insists talks can only begin when Turkey starts respecting his country's "sovereign rights" over energy exploration.

For those pushing to reunite the east Mediterranean island the increasing tensions over energy are jeopardising any chances of making progress.

The UN-backed talks last year were seen as the closest the two sides have ever come to solving the issue but now the fear is that any remaining goodwill is fast evaporating.

"This is a very dangerous strategy for both sides," said Turkish Cypriot journalist and peace activist Esra Aygin.

"Basically what both sides are saying right now if we get rid of all the details is that they don't want to start negotiations -- and this makes me question the sincerity and honesty and determination."