Turkey denies Israeli aircraft harassed Turkish ships

Turkish media reports Israeli F-15 jets and helicopter circled Turkish ship exploring for gas in disputed area of Mediterranean off Cyprus coast.

Turkish Gas Vessel 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish Gas Vessel 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish General Staff denied news reports circulating Friday that Israel had "harassed" Turkish gas exploration vessels with low-flying air-craft Thursday night, Turkish Today's Zaman reported according to a general staff statement.
The Turkish statement said that the reports "do not reflect the truth," Today's Zaman said.
RELATED:Region Watch: Storm clouds over eastern MediterraneanTurks begin gas exploration, risk feud with Cyprus, Israel
According to Turkish media reports, Low-flying Israeli warplanes and helicopters "harassed" a Turkish ship exploring for natural gas reserves near Cyprus on Thursday night.
Today's Zaman, citing accounts in Turkish daily Vatan and Greek Cypriot daily Phileleftheros, reported that two F-15 jets took off from Tel Aviv and flew through the airspace of both Greek Cyprus and Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus. The jets reportedly ignored warnings from officials of Turkish Cyprus.According to the report, Turkey sent two F-16 jets to track the Israeli F-15s, which subsequently returned to Israel.
The report added that an Israeli military helicopter flew over the Turkish seismic research ship the Piri Reis, exploring for gas off of Cyprus's southern coast.
Turkey said on Tuesday it was exploring for gas in an offshore zone where Cyprus started drilling last week, a step that could escalate a dispute over Mediterranean resources.
Israel is also drilling nearby, and the issue has emerged as a further bone of contention between Turkey and the Jewish state. Long Israel's rare Middle East ally, Ankara has downgraded ties in recent weeks over Israel's refusal to apologize for a deadly raid last year on a Turkish aid flotilla.
The question of who has the right to tap deposits in a region holding the world's biggest natural gas find of the past decade has added urgency to efforts to settle the conflict over Cyprus, divided since 1974 into Greek and Turkish enclaves.
The internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government says it has a sovereign right to drill. Turkey, the only country to recognize a separate Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the island, says the island's status must be resolved first.
In Nicosia, the island's divided capital, Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu resumed peace talks on Tuesday after a 10-day break for UN General Assembly deliberations.
The two sides are racing to make progress on complex reunification negotiations before a scheduled meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the end of October.
Last week, US-based Noble Energy started drilling offshore on behalf of Cyprus in an area termed Block 12, south of the island. Turkey has pledged to drill for gas on behalf of Turkish Cypriots unless the Greek Cypriots stop.
"If the Greek Cypriots agree to stop, we'll stop too. But if they insist on proceeding, they know very well Turkey's attitude," Turkey's minister for European Affairs, Egemen Bagis, said on Tuesday during a visit to the island's north.
"We have to warn against Greek Cypriot provocation. The resources are not going anywhere, so why are they being used to block [Cyprus reunification] negotiations?"
Cyprus has refused to back down. "The Republic of Cyprus cannot be held hostage to illegal actions of Turkey, which continues to occupy (Cyprus) and violates its territorial integrity and the human rights of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots," said government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou.
"As an internationally recognized state, a member of the UN and the EU, the Republic of Cyprus is exercising its sovereign rights."