Turkish Cypriot leader renews pitch for joint gas committee

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In this Tuesday, July 9, 2019 photo, a helicopter flies over Turkey’s drilling ship, ‘Fatih’ dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean, near Cyprus. Turkish officials say the drillships Fatih and Yavuz will drill for gas, which has prompted protests from Cyprus. (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The Turkish Cypriot leader on the ethnically divided island of Cyprus reissued a proposal Saturday to establish a joint committee with Greek Cypriots in offshore gas drilling activities amid an escalating tussle over energy reserves.

Mustafa Akinci conveyed the idea to the east Mediterranean nation’s Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades through a U.N. official. The statement said the proposal aims to turn a gas search off Cyprus into a platform for cooperation rather than one of “tension and conflict.”

The committee would be made up of an equal number of members from both communities and would fall under U.N. auspices with the European Union participating as an observer.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said Saturday that it fully backed Akinci’s proposal, which it said would create a “new era of cooperation between the two sides.

Akinci’s formal proposal comes as the EU is preparing sanctions against Turkey for dispatching a second vessel to drill for gas in waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights. The EU has condemned Turkey’s actions as an “unacceptable escalation” that breaches Cyprus’ sovereign rights and international law.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Friday that his country would step up its drilling activities off Cyprus if the EU moves ahead with sanctions.

Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the breakaway north. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys full membership benefits.

Turkey contends that it’s protecting its rights and those of Turkish Cypriots to the area’s hydrocarbon deposits. Cypriot officials, however, accuse Turkey of using the minority Turkish Cypriots in order to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region.

The Cypriot government says it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued around 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 42 miles (68 kilometers) off the island’s west coast.

Akinci has repeatedly called for the creation of such a committee that he says would give his community a say in how newly found gas deposits off Cyprus’ southern coast are managed and future proceeds are divvied up. A similar proposal was made by Akinci’s predecessor Dervis Eroglu in 2011.

The Cypriot government says energy discussions with Turkish Cypriots should bear part of overarching reunification talks, adding that Turkish Cypriot rights to the island’s energy reserves are assured. The government says future gas proceeds will be shared equitably after a peace deal is signed.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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