Cyprus protests British comments on offshore gas rights

Nicosia (AFP) –


Cyprus officially protested to Britain on Wednesday over "unacceptable" comments made by a Foreign Office minister that questioned its right to exploit offshore energy reserves while the island remains divided.

"An official demarche is being issued by the Republic of Cyprus today (Wednesday) from the foreign ministry through the British high commissioner, and the president will send the necessary letter to the prime minister," said Cypriot government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou.

"The high commissioner of the United Kingdom has been summoned to the foreign ministry for the necessary representations to his country over the unfortunate statements by the deputy minister," he told reporters.

On Tuesday, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades criticised as "unacceptable" remarks by Britain's Europe minister Alan Duncan that cast doubt over the east Mediterranean island's offshore economic rights.

Anastasiades said his government would lodge a complaint to British Prime Minister Theresa May over Duncan's remarks that came as its sought to consolidate international support after a Turkish bid to drill inside the island's exclusive economic zone.

Cyprus had won backing from fellow European Union member states, including Britain, against Turkey's bid to drill inside the island's exclusive economic zone.

Anastasiades said Cyprus has been a strong ally to Britain and shown "unprecedented support" during the Brexit crisis but now London was not following the "correct policy" on the island.

Britain, Cyprus's former colonial ruler, retains sovereignty over two strategically important military base areas on the island.

There are around 70,000 British expatriates living in Cyprus, while more than 1.3 million British tourists visit every year.

- 'Sovereignty under dispute' -

Duncan told British MPs on Tuesday: "The position of the UK is that, in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, exploratory drilling should not proceed in any area where sovereignty is under dispute."

Along with EU states, the United States, Egypt and Israel have also criticised the Turkish move.

Turkey says it is drilling inside its continental shelf and complying with international law.

It does not recognise the Cyprus government which it regards as an exclusively Greek Cypriot administration.

It is the only government in the world to recognise the breakaway state in the north of the island which Turkish Cypriot leaders declared in 1983.

The discovery of gas reserves off Cyprus has triggered an escalating dispute between the two sides.

Ankara argues that the government's moves to exploit the reserves without a deal to end the island's four and a half decades of division deprives the Turkish Cypriot minority of the benefits.

In February 2018, a drill ship for Italy's Eni abandoned an attempt to search for gas off Cyprus after it was blocked by Turkish warships.

The island has been divided since 1974 when Ankara occupied its northern third in response to a coup engineered by the military junta then in power in Athens-aimed at uniting it with Greece.

Successive UN-brokered efforts to reunify the island have all failed, the most recent in Switzerland in July 2017.