Cyprus said on 10 June it would press on with offshore oil exploration, despite strong objections from Turkey, and would open new fields for hydrocarbon research by early next year.

Cypriot Industry Minister Antonis Paschalides told Reuters in an interview that Turkey's decision to send warships to the area last year had not deterred investors eager to search for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean. 

The first exploration deal was clinched with US company Noble Energy, which has already found a large gas reservoir off nearby Israel. 

"The first round has been completed," he said. "We expect that around the end of this year, the beginning of next, we can proceed with the second licensing round." 

In 2007, Cyprus launched its first licensing round for hydrocarbons in 11 offshore blocks, most in deepwater locations, despite objections from Turkey, which invaded the north of Cyprus in 1974 after a brief Greek-inspired coup. 

In November last year, EU member Cyprus protested to the United Nations that Turkish warships had repeatedly harassed Norwegian research vessels off the southern rim of the island over blocks earmarked for exploration. 

Turkey, which lies north of Cyprus, said the research ships had encroached on its continental shelf. 

On Wednesday, Turkish officials called on Cyprus to abandon the project, saying the Greek Cypriot government in the south did not represent the whole island. 

"We expect the Greek Cypriot authorities to end their calls for international tender," said a Turkish foreign ministry official who requested anonymity. "Insistence [...] will adversely affect the peace and stability on the island of Cyprus, as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean region." 

Paschalides said the incidents involving Turkey were not deterring companies from a second round, which would offer 12 blocks in a process where companies acquire data with the option of moving on to exploration, then exploitation. 

"From the interest shown, there is no discouragement. We are optimistic that big companies are interested, international companies from many countries such as the United States, Russia, China and European countries." 

Israel's find encouraging

The 12 plots include 10 from the first round but with more research data, and another two which have just opened for exploration. 

Cyprus, over-reliant on heavy fuel oil imports and slow to switch to cleaner energy, was encouraged by Israel's discovery because the area is only 65 km from the Cypriot field that Noble Energy will be exploring. 

"We are optimistic if we take into account the Israel plot, where huge quantities of gas were found, neighbouring our own," Paschalides said. 

Asked whether Cyprus would change its planning after Turkey's reaction, he said: "Not at all [...] any natural wealth of Cyprus belongs to the Republic of Cyprus and the Cyprus people, and only them. We wish that the Cyprus problem would be solved so the Turkish Cypriots, as citizens of this Republic, could reap the same benefits." 

Turkish Cypriots in the north of the divided island say their Greek Cypriot rivals have no authority to explore for oil or gas and have warned the dispute could upset reunification talks. 

Paschalides said Cyprus would continue to block EU aspirant Turkey's energy negotiations with Brussels as a result of this dispute and intended to open more areas for exploration in future. 

"How can Turkey stake claims and want to get into Europe, want to open the energy chapter, yet question the sovereign rights of an EU member state?," he said. "What will Turkey do? Go and attack US research vessels?" 

(EurActiv with Reuters.)