(photo credit: REUTERS)
ANKARA - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan described offshore gas drilling by estranged ally Israel and Cyprus as "madness" on Wednesday, raising the stakes in a confrontation over potentially huge deposits in the eastern Mediterranean.
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The quarrel over gas has escalated in recent weeks, just as relations between Turkey and Israel abruptly broke down over Jerusalem's refusal to apologize for a deadly raid on a Turkish flotilla last year.
Israel and the Greek-speaking government of Cyprus are exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean, and Israel has laid claim to a massive deepwater gas field discovered in 2009.
Turkey, increasingly assertive in the region under Erdogan, disputes Israeli and Cypriot offshore territorial claims and says Cyprus should not exploit resources until it resolves a stand-off with its breakaway Turkish-speaking north.
"The Greek Cypriot administration and Israel are engaging in oil
exploration madness in the Mediterranean," Turkish state news agency
Anatolian quoted Erdogan as telling Turkish journalists in New York
ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting.
"Actually, the Greek Cypriot administration's drilling activity is
nothing but sabotage of the negotiation process between Turkish Cypriots
and Greek Cypriots," he added.
The drilling controversy has added a new and potentially explosive
element to a dispute over Cyprus which has defied mediation for decades.
The island was split by a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek
inspired coup. Turkey is the only country to recognize a breakaway
Turkish Cypriot state in the north, where it maintains a military
Erdogan also emphasized again Turkish military prowess on Wednesday:
"Our assault boats and frigates are already in the region," Anatolian
quoted him as saying.
The United Nations is trying to unite Cyprus as a federation and wants
talks to conclude by mid 2012. The European Commission has called for
Cyprus and Turkey to show restraint in the gas row and work toward a
settlement on the island.
Turkey's new tension with Israel makes the issue even more explosive at a
time when the Arab Spring revolts are reshaping the balance of power in
the region. Erdogan said last week that Turkish warships could be sent
to the eastern Mediterranean at any time and Israel could not do
whatever it wants there.
Texas-based Noble Energy which is carrying out the drilling operations
for Cyprus, has been conducting offshore drills in the eastern
Mediterranean for Israel since 1998.
Cyprus has said it will block negotiations Turkey began in 2005 to join
the European Union if Ankara continues to oppose its gas exploration.
Turkey has said it will freeze relations with the EU Presidency if
Cyprus is given the rotating role next July before a settlement over the
island is reached.