Istanbul: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday warned foreign oil companies over energy exploration off Cyprus, describing those who defy Ankara as “bandits of the sea” who would face a similar response as its foes in Syria.
Erdogan said in a speech marking the commissioning of a new Turkish warship that exploiting the resources of the eastern Mediterranean while excluding Ankara was unacceptable.
Drilling for hydrocarbon resources off EU member Cyprus is hugely sensitive as its northern third is occupied by Turkish forces who invaded in 1974 in response to a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
The Turkish-populated northern part of the island then declared the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognised only by Ankara. UN-backed efforts to reunify the island have so far come to nothing.
“As we made the terrorists in Syria pay, we will not leave the scene to the bandits of the sea,” Erdogan said at the commissioning of the TCG Burgazada, the third home-built corvette combat ship launched by Turkey as part of its MILGEM project.
Turkey has in the last two years waged successful military campaigns in Syria against Kurdish militia and Islamic State jihadists which left parts of the country’s north under the control of pro-Ankara forces.
Foreign energy giants such as ExxonMobil of the US, Italy’s ENI and France’s Total have all said they are committed to energy drilling off Cyprus, in defiance of past warnings from Erdogan.
But Erdogan said: “Those who thought they could take steps in the Eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean in defiance of Turkey have now begun to understand what a big mistake they were making.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to usurp the natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean while excluding Turkey and the TRNC,” he added.
Analysts have warned that the situation is extremely combustible with the risk that one false move could lead to a major confrontation.
In February, a drill ship contracted by ENI to explore off Cyprus abandoned its mission after Turkish warships blocked its path.
Cyprus last month invited Total, ENI and ExxonMobil to bid for unclaimed Block 7 in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. Block 10 has already been licensed to ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum.
Texas-based Noble Energy in 2011 made the first discovery off Cyprus in the Aphrodite block estimated to contain around 4.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The discovery of nearby Egypt’s huge Zohr offshore reservoir in 2015 has stoked hopes that Cypriot waters hold further riches.