- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

LIMASSOL, Cyprus — Warnings and threats backed by gunboat diplomacy have electrified the eastern Mediterranean region, where news of a possible major oil and natural gas field has created visions of unexpected wealth.

At stake are prospects for a major revenue source capable of transforming the economies of a large area centered on the divided island of Cyprus. Initial estimates from preliminary surveys indicate the possibility of $4 billion worth of oil below the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, in antiquity the center of the world as it was known to Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Defying Turkey’s claims to a share of the suspected treasure, the Greek Cypriot government has solicited tenders for exploration, and an estimated 40 international firms have shown interest. They include companies from the United States, France, Russia, China, Britain, India and Brazil.

A sudden appearance of Turkish warships south of this Cypriot port reminded all concerned of the pitfalls lying ahead, similar to those that stymied efforts to explore for oil in parts of the Aegean Sea between Turkey’s Anatolian landmass and the Dodecanese islands of Greece.

Diplomats worry that the escalating exchange between Turkey’s capital, Ankara, and its Hellenic antagonists may further dampen faltering efforts to end the ethnic split on Cyprus.

Turkey’s tensions rise

Already, diplomatic sparring has provoked a rash of bellicose headlines in Cyprus and Greece, presaging an increase of tension with Turkey, which has some 30,000 troops in the north of Cyprus.

Turkey and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus demanded recognition of their rights in the area known as “Eratosthenes” earmarked for exploration south of Cyprus.

The Greek Cypriot government, which controls 63 percent of Cyprus, protested to the United Nations secretary-general and the president of the Security Council against Turkish claims.

The presence of Turkish warships near the shores of Cyprus “constitutes not only a dangerous provocation and a threat to the regional peace and stability, but also an unconcealed and irresponsible violation of fundamental principles of international law,” the Cypriot statement said.

“The republic of Cyprus does not represent the whole of the island,” said the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. “Therefore laws on the issue enacted by the Greek Cypriot government or agreements made with other interested parties have no validity for us.” The statement referred to a preliminary agreement on exploration rights signed by Cyprus with Lebanon and Egypt, without mentioning the island’s Turkish Cypriot community.

Naval exercise held

“Turkey is determined to protect its rights and interests in the eastern Mediterranean and will not allow attempts to erode them,” the Turkish statement added.

Immediately after publication of the document, three Turkish warships taking part in the naval exercise “Mediterranean Shield” approached the limits of Cypriot territorial waters.

Ankara declared that the ships had no “specific mission” in the area, which was swept by war jitters. In a carefully crafted statement to Turkish television, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of Turkish General Staff, said the ships were on a routine patrol and “there was no need to send new warships to the area.”

Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat insisted that the entity backed by Turkey be given a share in any oil findings. “We will not let our rights be eroded by the Greek Cypriot administration,” he said.

In an editorial, the English-language Cyprus Mail retorted: “The rights of the Turkish Cypriots would undoubtedly exist if they had remained part of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus.” Headlines in the Greek Cypriot press, some accusing Turkey of piracy and others promising a major oil rush, kept up the tension and the exchange of verbal broadsides.

U.S. position guessed

“International giants are expressing interest in becoming involved in the explorations,” the pro-government daily Phileleftheros declared, while another newspaper, Simerini, speculated about “U.S. acrobatics for oil and gas” in the eastern Mediterranean.

Diplomatic sources say Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos had expected that with the involvement of U.S. firms in the oil exploration, Washington would back the Greek Cypriot position. But later reports said the State Department merely suggested a demarcation of the continental shelf around Cyprus before the start of exploration efforts.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged Cyprus and Turkey to refrain from any actions “that might be misinterpreted by the other side.” Nonetheless, with tempers rising, Greek Cypriot government spokesman Christodoulos Pashiardis said: “We assess Turkey’s threats to be unjustified, and the reaction of the incorrigible troublemaker of the region as unfounded. We refuse to discuss Turkey’s reactions.”

Greece, the protector of Greek Cypriots, promptly joined the fray.

“The positions expressed by Ankara are in flagrant violation of the fundamental principles of international law, national sovereignty and the rights of independent nations to conduct agreements with each other,” said Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos.

Provocation feared

Under the headline “A new crisis for Ankara, Nicosia and Athens,” the Athens daily Kathimerini suggested: “An escalation of the conflict with Ankara is naturally not desirable, but current practice involves the risk of Greece’s becoming a bystander to Turkey’s provocations.”

While diplomats spar and specialists examine the rules according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, questions have arisen about the size of the possible oil treasure and its viability.

Analysts say that, because of the depth of the water in the area, the cost of the drilling is likely to be steep. Present estimates suggest a cost between $20 million to $50 million for each drill. Initial estimates suggested the availability of between six billion and eight billion barrels of oil south of Cyprus.

Interest in the area is based to some extent on a hitherto confidential map of the eastern Mediterranean drafted by the French Institute of Petroleum Exploration. The institute was involved in a search for oil in the Aegean Sea in the 1970s and now is acting as a consultant to the government of the Republic of Cyprus.

The map shows a relatively large area around the southern, western and northern shores of Cyprus to the coast of Asia Minor as a potential source of oil wealth.

Region below Cyprus

Investigation of the area south of Cyprus was done by an American-owned Norwegian firm, which intends to sell the results to companies willing to undertake the drilling.

At a presentation in London last year, 40 companies expressed interest — including Shell, which has a concession in Egypt. Like Lebanon, Egypt is a signatory to the so-called “Exclusive Economic Zone” declared by the Greek Cypriot government.

The exploring company has divided into 14 blocks the area south of Cyprus called “Eratosthenes,” named for the ancient Greek scholar of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., who served as head librarian of the Great Library at Alexandria and is considered “the father of geography.”

When and by whom the initial drilling will take place has not been announced.

Turkey’s interest has been aroused particularly by the northern area dubbed Kastelorizo, carefully excluded from the original survey to avoid Ankara’s interference.

So far it has not been determined how the potential participants will react to Turkey’s warnings and particularly to the presence of its naval force in the eastern Mediterranean.

Some Greek specialists say Turkey is raising the issue as a preventive measure to freeze further search. To the Kathimerini newspaper, “the question now is how far Turkey will go and how much patience Cyprus will be capable of.”

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