ISTANBUL, Turkey, April 5 (UPI) -- Turkey will start drilling for oil and gas in northern Cyprus this month despite opposition from Greek Cypriots, the north's energy minister says.
Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus Economy and Energy Minister Sunat Atun said Tuesday in Istanbul that the Turkish Petroleum Corp. will launch the land-based drilling initiative at the end of April, the Anatolian News Agency reported.
"Drilling will be launched in one area now but it could be extended if the need arises," Atun said, adding that Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz would attend a ceremony to mark the launch the effort.
The announcement came amid growing tensions in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greek Cypriots after Nicosia last year began natural gas and oil exploration in its own exclusive economic zone.
Ankara, in response, deployed warships to the area, and, in a tit-for-tat move, signed an agreement with the Turkish Cypriots to delineate the continental shelf between the two counties -- although Turkey is the only country that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -- with the aim of enabling Turkish Petroleum to carry out seismic research and offshore oil exploration.
The September 2011 agreement, signed in New York by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Northern Cyprus President Dervis Eroglu, has been dismissed by Greek Cypriots as illegal but shortly thereafter a Turkish vessel began seismic data collection in the area.
The Cypriot government, which hasn't been recognized by Turkey since the 1960s, protested Ankara's moves to the United Nations and the European Union, arguing it has the sovereign right to tap its natural resources.
Cyprus has signed an agreement with Egypt and Israel to delineate its own exclusive economic zone in Mediterranean, through which it seeks to tap any and natural gas and oil reserves held within it.
Drilling in Aphrodite field within the zone uncovered what are thought to be significant oil and gas reserves. In February, Cyprus opened the bidding for the remaining blocks in the field.
A resolution passed by the European Parliament on Turkey's progress toward EU accession recognized the legality of the zone, Cypriot Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Neoclis Sylikiotis said Monday.
European lawmakers determined it was in compliance with the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, which Turkey was called upon to sign, Sylikiotis told the Famagusta Gazette.
Tensions over oil and gas drilling in Cyprus could be alleviated if both sides agreed to share revenues from any future production, the International Crisis Group, a security think tank in Brussels, said in a report issued this week.
"Turks and Turkish Cypriots should avoid aggravating tensions and abstain from taking actions inside Cyprus' exclusive economic zone," the ICG said in its report, which also called on Turkey to "adopt a long-term strategy that ends threats and reassures Greek Cypriots that it truly aims for a Cyprus settlement, normalization and a withdrawal of Turkish troops."
Negotiations to reach a resolution over the 38-year occupation of northern Cyprus have bogged down in recent months.
In the meantime, Israel, the United States and Greece this week began a naval exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is being seen by some in Greece as a message to Turkey, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Called "Noble Dina," the exercises reportedly involve the protection of offshore natural gas platforms.
The annual Mediterranean maneuvers at one time involved Turkey, but since Ankara froze military cooperation with Israel in 2009 following a deterioration in their relations, Greece has replaced Turkey in the exercises, the newspaper said.