Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkish navy will protect Gaza aid ships
ISTANBUL // Turkey's plan to boost its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean appears to be the latest reaction to its row with Israel.
But the move also reflects concerns about unresolved energy issues in the region.
For the second time in three days, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said on Thursday that his country would send more ships to the eastern Mediterranean.
"Turkish warships will be tasked with protecting the Turkish boats bringing humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip," he told Al Jazeera. He said Israeli forces would be unable to stage another attack like the one that killed nine activists on a Gaza flotilla in May last year, triggering a crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Mr Erdogan announced on Tuesday that Turkey was increasing the number of its warships in the eastern Mediterranean, but his statement on Thursday was the first time he said the ships would protect future Gaza flotillas and the first time he drew a connection between the naval build-up and tensions over vast energy reserves under the sea.
"We have taken action to make sure that the natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean will not benefit Israel alone," said Mr Erdogan.
Turkey has said Israel must apologise for the death of the activists in last year's attack, something Israel refuses to do. The government has expressed its regret over the loss of lives but insists its soldiers acted in self-defence.
Serkan Nergis, a spokesman for the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, the Turkish organisation behind last year's flotilla, said there were no immediate plans to send a second set of ships to Gaza.
"Donations that we received for Gaza will definitely go to Gaza down to the last penny, but we cannot say anything about when that will happen," Mr Nergis said yesterday.
In the Al Jazeera interview, Mr Erdogan underlined that his decision to strengthen the naval presence was not just related to the Gaza row.
"Israel is beginning to say that it has the right to be active in exclusive economic zones" in the waters off its coast, Mr Erdogan said. "They do not have that right."
Two enormous natural gas fields, containing as much as 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, have been found in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel and Lebanon have both laid claims to the fields.
Cyprus believes there are natural gas deposits in the island's waters of some 10 trillion cubic feet.
Turkey has been angered by gas and oil explorations by the Greek Cypriots, the internationally recognised representatives of the island, which has been divided since a Greek-Cypriot coup and an ensuing Turkish military intervention in 1974.
"Turkey would have turned against a Cypriot-Israeli partnership even without the row" over the attack on the Gaza flotilla, said Celalettin Yavuz, an analyst at the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis.
Future crises could also erupt over trade routes, added Mr Yavuz.