Turkey raises tensions, insisting on keeping vessel off Cyprus

A decision by Turkey’s top security body to maintain its presence off the southern coast of Cyprus, where Cypriot authorities already have a license to drill for oil and gas, has heightened fears of tensions climaxing in the region if the Turkish seismic survey vessel Barbaros moves into other areas.

The decision, which was issued by Turkey’s National Security Council early on Friday, declared that Turkey would continue to “protect the rights and interests” of the breakaway state in northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Ankara, in the eastern Mediterranean. The statement added that Ankara would continue to closely follow the drilling activities of Cyprus.

Diplomatic sources interpreted the statement as a rebuke to the trilateral cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on the issue of drilling rights and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the region. Earlier this week, the three countries condemned Ankara for its transgressions off Cyprus, saying in a joint statement that they “deplored the recent illegal actions perpetrated within Cyprus’s EEZ, as well as the unauthorized seismic operations being conducted therein.”

Meanwhile sources indicated that Ankara has rejected a proposal by the United Nations for the Barbaros to withdraw from the vicinity of Cyprus’s EEZ for three months to allow frozen UN-buffered negotiations aimed at reunifying the divided island to resume. The proposal is said to have been relayed to Turkish officials by UN mediator Espen Barth Eide. The Norwegian diplomat is said to be working on a formula foreseeing the distribution of revenue from energy deposits off Cyprus between Nicosia and the Turkish-occupied north.

In a related development, the president of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez, has written to US Vice President Joe Biden, expressing concern over Turkey’s violation of Cyprus’s EEZ and asking the latter to urge Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw the Barbaros. The letter comes before Biden’s scheduled visit to Turkey on November 20.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades spoke by telephone with Biden late on Friday, according to government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides, who said Biden showed “full understanding” regarding Cyprus’s right to exercise its sovereign rights within its EEZ.

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