The Turkish government and authorities in the Turkish part of Cyprus sent separate protest notes to Israeli officials because of reported airspace violation by Israel.
Turkey fighter jets scramble after Israeli plane flies over northern Cyprus
ISTANBUL // Turkey said yesterday its fighter jets chased an Israeli plane over northern Cyprus this week, in what one analyst called a "game of chicken" in an area at the centre of a row over gas and oil exploration rights.
A Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday the Turkish government and authorities in the Turkish part of Cyprus sent separate protest notes to Israeli officials because a reported airspace violation by Israel had triggered the incident.
"An Israeli airplane, the type of which could not be determined, violated [northern Cypriot] airspace five times and for a total of eight minutes," the general staff in Ankara said on its website in a statement describing the incident that it said took place between 11.05am and 12.49pm local time over the sea off northern Cyprus on Monday.
In response, Turkish F-16 fighter jets from the Incirlik airbase near Adana, about 120 kilometres to the north-east of Cyprus, scrambled to chase the Israeli jet away, the statement said. The Turkish jets "prevented a continuation of the air space violation", it added. There was no comment from Israel.
The general staff statement did not specify whether the Israeli jet had been a warplane, but made it clear Turkey took the incident very seriously. It said the jets in Incirlik were activated under a "Genuine Alarm" scenario, adding the English term "Scramble".
"A demarche was made by us and by Turkish Cypriots separately," the Turkish diplomat said about the protest against Israel.
According to Turkish news reports, Ankara suspects the Israeli plane was sent to gather intelligence about Turkish oil and gas exploration around northern Cyprus.
In the Aegean, confrontations between Turkish and Greek warplanes over disputed waters are common, with the Turkish general staff counting eight incidents so far this month alone. But none of this month's incidents in the Aegean resulted in Turkish jets scrambling under "Genuine Alarm" orders.
The incident came amid increasing discord in the eastern Mediterranean. The unsolved conflict on Cyprus, which has been divided since a coup by Greek nationalists in Nicosia in 1974 triggered a Turkish military intervention, and a political crisis between Turkey and Israel, combined with efforts by Cyprus and Israel to cooperate in extracting the vast offshore natural gas deposits without participation by Turkish Cypriots, have created a brew of political tensions.
"In such a situation, a show of force was inevitable," Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said by telephone yesterday. He said Israel had probably sent the jet to Cyprus to test Turkey's reaction. "It's a game of chicken," he said.
Turkey regards itself as the protector of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a statelet that is internationally isolated and recognised only by Ankara and lies in the northern third of the island.
The Turkish government has been critical of a growing cooperation between the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus in the Greek part of the island and Israel in energy matters.
Both Cyprus and Israel have discovered huge offshore natural gas deposits between them, and have tentatively discussed cooperation on delivering gas to European and Asian markets. The drilling for gas and oil in the seabed off Cyprus began last year and angered Turkey, which says the activity violates northern Cypriots' rights to the same resources.
Ankara has in turn given approval for Turkey's state-run oil firm to carry out oil and gas exploration in six offshore areas around northern Cyprus, drawing condemnation from the Greek Cypriot government.
Adding to the tensions is a political crisis between Turkey and former ally Israel. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and downgraded relations last year because Israel refused to apologise for the death of nine Turkish activists during an Israeli military raid on a Turkish ship carrying aid for the Gaza Strip in 2010. According to Turkish news reports, Ankara is also concerned that Israel may try to use Turkish airspace for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Analysts said more tensions were possible, but they did not expect the situation to turn into armed conflict. "Neither Turkey nor Israel want that to happen," Mr Orhan said. "Tensions will increase up to a certain point, but then the countries involved, and also world powers like the US and Europe will become active to diffuse the situation."