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Turkey resumes gas exploration in eastern Mediterranean after two-year halt

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Turkey’s new drill ship Abdulhamid Han (file photo)

Turkey has resumed offshore gas exploration in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean after a two-year hiatus, a move that is expected to stoke regional tensions.

Turkey’s new drill ship Abdulhamid Han set off to drill for gas in the eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that the ship would operate 55 kilometers off the country’s coast within what he called Turkey’s “sovereign territory.”

“The survey and drilling work we are conducting in the Mediterranean are within our sovereign territory. We do not need to receive permission or consent from anyone for this,” Erdogan said at a ceremony to launch the ship.

Rich with natural gas resources, the eastern Mediterranean could become a flashpoint for regional and wider disputes after the Russian military offensive in Ukraine triggered a global energy crisis and sent importers scrambling for alternative hydrocarbon sources.

Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez announced on July 26 that the 238-meter-long last-generation drill ship would leave Turkey for an unspecified location.

Natasa Pilides, Cyprus’ energy minister, said a day before Donmez’s announcement that Europe’s drive to slash reliance on Russian natural gas had boosted the strategic importance of its offshore finds. “Europe is a good potential customer for Cypriot gas,” Pilides said. “The EU has confirmed that natural gas will remain a bridge fuel up to 2049 as part of the green transition.”

Gas explorations have been continuing in Cypriot offshore blocks since gas fields were discovered in the early 2000s.

Cyprus has long been contended between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. A 1974-military coup in Cyprus aimed at uniting the island with mainland Greece led to a Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island and an enduring division.

The self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus does not recognize the right of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus – a member of the EU since 2004 – to award exploration rights to foreign companies without its consent.

Greece and Turkey were on the verge of a military confrontation in August and September 2020, after Turkey dispatched its seismic survey ship Oruc Reis to explore for oil and gas in areas that Greece claims as part of its territory. Tensions simmered until Turkey halted offshore gas exploration in December 2020, shortly after the European Union threatened Ankara with economic sanctions.

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