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Turkey rattles sabres over Cypriot natural gas drilling

A fresh row between Turkey and the divided island of Cyprus is also embroiling Greece and Israel as the Turkish prime minister warned last week that he was ready to send warships to monitor Cypriot and Israeli energy projects.

Prospects of an underwater natural gas bonanza in the eastern Mediterranean have sparked a fresh row between Turkey and the divided island of Cyprus that is also embroiling Greece and Israel.

The Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, warned last week that he was ready to send warships to the area, both to escort Turkish aid convoys to the Gaza Strip and to monitor Cypriot and Israeli energy projects.

How far Turkey is prepared to escalate tensions will become clearer in coming days.

A Texas-based company, Noble Energy, is due to launch exploratory drilling south of Cyprus soon on behalf of the Greek Cypriots, who represent the island internationally and in the European Union.

Asked about those plans, Egemen Bagis, Turkey's EU minister, warned this month: "It is for this [reason] that countries have warships. It is for this that we have equipment and train our navies."

In the past, Turkey has proved ready to back its positions in maritime disputes with military muscle.

Ankara came to the brink of war with Greece, a Nato ally, in 1987, over a similar drilling rights dispute in the Aegean Sea.

But it is doubtful that Turkey will do more than rattle its sabres in this stand-off, analysts say.

"It seems very unlikely that Turkey would directly defy a US company," said Hugh Pope, the Ankara-based Turkey-Cyprus project director at the International Crisis Group.

Turkey demands that the Greek Cypriots postpone offshore drilling until there is a solution to the decades-old Cyprus problem.

Otherwise, Ankara argues, the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, which is recognised only by Turkey, will lose out on a share of the island's gas riches.

The Cypriot president, Demetris Christofias, insists the smaller and less affluent Turkish Cypriot community can share the potential hydrocarbon bounty once there is a deal to reunify the island. He has accused Turkey of being a regional "troublemaker".

The energy row coincides with a major drive by the United Nations to reunite Cyprus by the middle of next year when the island assumes the rotating EU presidency.

The former British colony was split by a Turkish invasion in 1974 that was triggered by a brief coup in Nicosia engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece.

The Cypriot government said this week it would keep Turkey's faltering EU accession talks on hold for as long as Ankara challenges its right to exploit energy resources.

Turkey, disillusioned with the EU after receiving the cold shoulder for years, declared yesterday that it would freeze relations with the European club if a still-divided Cyprus is given the EU presidency in July.

If so, "the real crisis will be between Turkey and the EU", warned Turkey's deputy prime minister, Besir Atalay.

The Aphrodite field - more prosaically known as Block 12 - where Noble is about to drill could hold some 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, Cypriot officials say.

It is more than enough to meet Cyprus's domestic needs, leaving a healthy surplus for the lucrative export market.

Block 12 is a mere 50 kilometres from Israel's Leviathian gasfield, where Noble has confirmed gas reserves of 16 trillion cubic feet.

Cyprus sees itself playing a key role in a new regional energy equation involving Israel, Greece, and, in the event of a Cyprus settlement, Turkey.

Ankara in recent days has indicated one way it might respond if the Greek Cypriots proceed with drilling.

It warned it would sign a pact with the Turkish Cypriot state for hydrocarbon exploration in waters between Turkey and northern Cyprus.

"This threat was mostly a symbolic way for Turkey to hit back at the Greek Cypriots without directly challenging the US," said Hubert Faustmann, a political analyst at the University of Nicosia.

"Drilling in waters where there may be no oil or gas could be a very expensive way to make a point." Confidential US diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that Turkey tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to dissuade Noble from co-operating with the Greek Cypriots.

The US company was warned that it "could never expect to do business with Turkey" if it proceeded.

The EU this week called on Turkey to refrain "from any kind of threats" against Cyprus, while the US embassy in Nicosia has given Noble the nod to proceed.

Greece has vowed to defend the Greek Cypriots.

James Ker-Lindsay, an expert on the eastern Mediterranean at the London School of Economics, said: "Washington, Britain and the EU have been quite clear on this.

"Cyprus is perfectly within its legitimate, sovereign rights to engage in this [energy exploration] activity."

The Cypriot and Israeli gasfields are part of a geological area called the Levant Basin, which lies off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Gaza and Egypt.

The US Geological Survey estimates the basin could hold 122 trillion cubic feet of extractable gas.

That makes it one of the world's richest deposits - in one of the world's most fractious areas.

The prospect of such staggering mineral wealth is stoking old conflicts and shaping new alliances.

Israel and Lebanon are feuding over a maritime border and have exchanged hawkish warnings over protecting their resources.

Apparently championing Lebanon's case, Mr Erdogan said last week that his country will not allow Israel exclusive use of resources in the Mediterranean.

Israel, meanwhile, is looking for new regional allies following the decline in its once solid relations with Ankara - relations soured after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on a Gaza aid ship last year.

Tel Aviv has reached out to the Greek Cypriots and Greece, which have historically good relations with the Arab world.

The Israeli energy company Delek, which is working closely with Noble, has proposed a partnership with Cyprus to build a facility on the island for processing and exporting to Europe natural gas found in Israeli and Cypriot waters.

Washington, meanwhile, is struggling to patch up relations between Israel and Turkey.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

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