Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday warned Cyprus not to “overstep the mark” in the eastern Mediterranean, after Ankara sent warships to interdict a vessel exploring for natural gas over the weekend.
Speaking to members of his ruling AK Party in parliament, Erdogan said Turkish warships and security units were monitoring developments in the region.
“We warn those who overstep the mark in Cyprus and the Aegean,” he said. “They are standing up to us until they see our army, ships and planes”.
The European Union on Monday called on Turkey to avoid threats and “refrain from any actions that might damage good neighbourly” ties after Cyprus accused the Turkish military of obstructing a drillship contracted by Italy’s state-controlled ENI.
President Nicos Anastasiades said no one should worry.
“There is no cause for concern,” he said.
He added that the situation was being handled in such a way to prevent a crisis, which could create problems for the economy and the state.
The Cyprus Mail tried to speak with the government spokesman, but he could not be reached for comment.
Last Friday Turkish warships, claiming to be participating in military drills in waters off the east of the island, stopped the Saipem 12000 drillship en route to a site in offshore block 3 where it was scheduled to drill an exploratory gas well.
Since then, the drillship has been immobilized at a distance of approximately 50km from the target site, dubbed ‘Cuttlefish’.
The standoff in block 3 of Cyprus’ economic maritime zone appears to be the highest escalation on Turkey’s part in the eastern Mediterranean since the island made a natural gas discovery in 2011.
Turkey’s Europe minister, Omer Celik, will be meeting with EU foreign affairs ministers and EU high representative Federica Mogherini in Sofia later this week.
The tension over Cyprus is likely to be discussed, within other EU-Turkey issues, but no Mogherini-Celik bilateral discussion has been scheduled yet.
For its part, the Italian government reiterated it was monitoring the situation and would take “all possible diplomatic steps to resolve the issue.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity to the Cyprus News Agency, an Italian diplomat neither confirmed nor denied media reports that an Italian frigate has been dispatched to waters close to the Saipem 12000.
The sources said they had no knowledge of such a move.
“All channels of communication are open, and we are undertaking every possible initiative on a diplomatic level. We are not the only ones acting in this matter,” the sources said, going on to describe the situation as “highly complex and sensitive.”
Italian website reppublica.it had reported that Rome despatched to the area in question a frigate that is part of Nato’s ‘Sea Guardian’ mission.
But the report stressed that the ship’s commander was issued explicit orders not to antagonize the Turkish warships in any way. His orders were to “be ready to offer assistance to the drillship and above all coordinate with the other European military units that are in the area, a Greek frigate and a Spanish frigate.”
Speaking at an industry event in Cairo on Monday, ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi said the company had not expected Turkey to obstruct the Saipem 12000 because “we are inside Cyprus’ EEZ.”
He said ENI had used the same drillship earlier in block 6, “under similar circumstances, and absolutely nothing had happened.”
Regarding the drillship’s approach to block 3, Descalzi added, “tension was probably caused for other reasons and the ship was blocked.”
But speaking on Italian state television, Descalzi was also quoted as saying: “We cannot wait forever, this dispute does not concern us but rather Cyprus, Turkey and the EU, and we are waiting for it to be resolved.”
Daily Phileleftheros meanwhile reports that the Saipem 12000 is being shadowed by a Turkish warship at a distance of approximately one nautical mile.
On board the drillship are some 60 persons, although those crew members directly involved with drilling operations are currently on land for a rest period having only recently completed operations in block 6.
According to Phileleftheros, since Friday the Turkish navy has likewise prevented over a dozen merchant vessels from approaching the vicinity.
The standoff in block 3 comes just days after ENI confirmed a probable gas discovery in block 6, at a site called ‘Calypso’.
ENI’s Descalzi said an appraisal well would have to be drilled to understand the real volumes of Calypso.
Asked whether the prospect is believed to hold around 6 to 8 trillion cubic feet, Descalzi said: “It could be more or in that range… for sure it cannot be less but we have to understand it … It’s a good find that has merit to go ahead with additional investment.”
Turkey is against Cyprus’ drilling projects, claiming they disregard the rights of breakaway Turkish Cypriots to the island’s natural resources.
In September 2011 Ankara and the breakaway regime signed a ‘Continental Shelf Delimitation Agreement’.
It is on this basis that Turkish Cypriots declared an ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ which in effect claims that half of Cyprus’ EEZ belongs to them, including blocks 1,2,3,8,9,12 and 13, including within few kilometres of the Aphrodite gas field.
Turkey itself is laying claim to parts of various blocks in Cyprus’ EEZ saying the areas in question form part of its continental shelf.
The claim includes part of blocks 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7, to the west and southwest of the island.