Gas row looms large over divided Cyprus

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Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu said yesterday (25 September) he would present a new plan to the UN secretary-general for gas explorations surrounding the divided island, resources that could change its economic landscape.

"I am planning to present a plan to the secretary-general, a proposal, a new one on the gas exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves," Eroğlu said through a translator of his scheduled Saturday meeting with Ban Ki-moon.

Eroğlu, speaking in the unrecognised nation's offices housed within Turkey's mission to the United Nations, would not provide details when pressed about his ideas.

Northern Cyprus signed an agreement with state-run Turkish Petroleum Corporation, or TPAO, in April to launch onshore exploratory drilling.

In the next five or six months, TPAO is expected to start drilling offshore to see if it can find gas deep in the eastern Mediterranean, said Eroğlu, who was in New York for the United National General Assembly meeting.

The island has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military invaded after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then in power in Athens (see background).

Turkey was outraged last year when the internationally recognised government of Cyprus, led by Demetris Christofias, licensed Texas-based Noble Energy to explore an offshore block for natural gas in what it said was one of the biggest finds in years.

If the gas discovered by Greek Cypriots is proven reliable, it could end their dependency on energy imports and make them self-sufficient for decades.

"I have already warned Mr Christofias at the table that if you start your drilling activities, then we will engage in our own drilling activities in the waters around Cyprus," Eroğlu said.

After the announcement between Nicosia and Noble Energy, Ankara dispatched naval ships to accompany its own seismic research vessel to explore in waters 10 kilometres from the Cyprus drill site.

Cyprus holds the rotating presidency of the EU through the end of the year.

Hydrocarbons could provide financial relief to both sides of the divided island.

Isolated North

The Republic of Cyprus was forced to seek aid from the International Monetary Fund and the EU in June to prop up it banks, which were badly exposed to debt-crippled Greece.

Turkish Cypriots living north of a buffer zone are economically and political isolated, relying on financial handouts from Ankara.

Turkey still keeps about 30,000 troops in the north and is the only nation that recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots agree in principle on reuniting the island as a federation but differ on how it would work. Their lack of progress forced Ban to scrap plans in April for an international conference on Cyprus.

Eroğlu's intention to bring a gas exploration plan to Ban is aimed at reviving negotiations.

Eroğlu said he proposed using whatever is earned from any gas or oil to finance a reunification settlement.

"That under the secretary-general's direction there should be an escrow fund for collecting this revenue so that it could be used for financing the settlement," Eroğlu said.

Direct talks between the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been on hold for several months, partly because of a Greek Cypriot poll in 2013 to elect a new president and their EU presidency.

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