NICOSIA (AFP) – Cyprus said yesterday the expansion and operation of its shipping fleet, the third largest in the EU, was being stifled by Turkey’s continued embargo of Cypriot-flagged vessels entering its ports. «The ban not only applies to Cyprus-flagged vessels but those linked to Cypriot interests. This is the number one problem of Cyprus shipping,» Thomas Kazakos, Cyprus Shipping Council’s general secretary, told a press conference. «This is a flagrant violation of EU principles such as free trade… and against the European shipping community in general,» he added. He said the issue was about «European economic interests» and not merely bilateral relations. Cyprus argues that more ships would register with its fleet, the ninth largest in the world, if Turkey lifted its embargo imposed on Cypriot vessels and aircraft since 1987. Officials estimate that shipping generates 180 million Cypriot pounds annually. In theory, Turkey signing a protocol in July extending a customs accord with the EU to the bloc’s 10 newcomer states – including Cyprus – should result in the embargo being lifted. But Ankara, due to begin membership talks on October 3, declared this did not amount to a recognition of the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia. EU member states are trying to resolve the issue by coming up with a common statement in response to Turkey’s stance. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said earlier this week that Turkey must open its ports to air and sea traffic from Cyprus but gave no timetable for when this should happen. Industry officials say the Cypriot fleet has seen a «mild reduction» in registrations due to a quality upgrade and because of the embargo, during a boom time for shipping. «The market is good and owners are hurrying to order new ships and the fact certain ships are not able to approach Turkish ports is a negative element affecting the further development of Cypriot shipping,» said merchant shipping department director Sergios Serghiou. Once seen as a flag of convenience, Cyprus has managed to improve its image and up its standards underlined by the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Port State Control removing the country from its blacklist earlier this year after 20 years. Cyprus was promoted to the gray list and hopes to become a full MoU member in 2006 if it can maintain a low ship detention rate at ports. There are 1,084 ships on the Cyprus register representing 21.3 million gross tons.