SINIRUSTU/SYGKRASI, Cyprus – Turkey began exploratory drilling for oil and gas Thursday in the breakaway Turkish north of ethnically divided Cyprus, heightening a dispute over who is entitled to the Mediterranean island's potential fuel riches.
The move counters an offshore gas search by rival Greek Cypriots in the island's internationally recognized southern half that has touched off vociferous protests from Ankara and Turkish Cypriots.
Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz joined Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu to inaugurate the start of drilling by Turkish Petroleum company TPAO at the Turkyurdu-1 borehole near this northwest village.
"We may not extract oil or gas from this well, but drilling is part of a wider package," said Yildiz. "This work has strategic significance and we attribute great importance to it."
Eroglu hailed the start of drilling as "a historic moment" which accords Turkish Cypriots "great strategic significance."
"We will not allow anyone to take away the rights of Turkish Cypriots in the eastern Mediterranean," said Eroglu.
TPAO President and CEO Mehmet Uysal said drilling will reach a total depth of 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) and will take four months to complete. He said the investment in the search for fuel in northern Cyprus could cost as much as $400 million.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in 1983 is recognized only by Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there.
Turkey doesn't recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country and insists that the Greek Cypriot search flouts the rights of Turkish Cypriots to any gas-generated wealth while undermining negotiations to reunify the island.
Tensions were raised last year when Ankara sent a warship-escorted research vessel to look for fuel off the island's southern coast. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also warned that his country would "retaliate even more strongly" to any further mineral exploration around the island.
The Cypriot government says any fuel search is its sovereign right accorded to it under international law and has denounced what it calls Turkey's "gunboat diplomacy." It also said gas finds could be an incentive to peace that would allow both Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to share in the wealth.
Cyprus Government Spokesman Stefanos Stefanou called the drilling illegal and said the government would lodge formal protests against the move.
"Actions such as this drilling being undertaken by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots demonstrates a lack of will on their part to achieve a Cyprus settlement that would be just under the circumstances, viable and functional," said Stefanou.
Greece's Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said drilling is in breach of United Nations resolutions calling all members to respect the island's sovereignty and independence.
"We call on Turkey to tangibly contribute at last to achieving an overall and mutually acceptable Cyprus settlement within the framework of the agreed-upon negotiating effort," Delavekouras said.
The U.S. firm Noble Energy announced last December the discovery of an estimated 5-8 trillion cubic feet (140-230 billion cubic meters) of gas inside one of 13 blocks that make up Cyprus' exclusive economic zone. Officials said that is enough to meet the island's energy needs for many decades.
The Cypriot deposit sits close to a massive Israeli field and the two countries are currently discussing ways of how to extract and process the gas for domestic use and possible export. Cyprus launched a second licensing round for more offshore exploratory drilling earlier this year.
Ankara also claims rights of its own to the Cyprus's exclusive economic zone and considers as invalid an agreement that the island and Israel signed last year demarcating their maritime borders.