Cyprus petitions ICC over Turkey's offshore drilling

Turkey's moves to further pursue drilling off the coast of Cyprus and signing of controversial maritime deal with Libya's GNA have increased tensions over disputed energy sources in the region.

NICOSIA - Cyprus has petitioned the International Court of Justice at The Hague to protect its offshore gas reserves from meddling by Turkey, President Nicos Anastasiades said Thursday.

"We have said we will use every legitimate and legal weapon, in every international forum, to defend the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus, and the petition to the The Hague has this purpose," Anastasiades told reporters.

The island's internationally recognised government felt compelled to seek the judgement of the court after Turkish authorities sent drill ships into what it regards as its exclusive economic zone.

The move came as the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee on Thursday endorsed a controversial deal on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean reached between Turkey and Libya's UN-supported government, ratcheting up tensions over disputed energy sources in the region.

Greece, Egypt and Libya's rival eastern government were among the actors that joined Cyprus in voicing their opposition to the agreement.

The Greek Cypriot dominated government has pushed ahead with offshore oil and gas exploration despite the collapse in 2017 of UN-backed talks on ending the island's decades-long division.

That has angered Turkey, which has had troops stationed in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island since 1974 when it seized it in response to a Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia seeking union with Greece.

Cyprus is a member state of the European Union and Turkish drilling operations inside the island's exclusive economic zone have prompted the bloc to draw up a legal framework for sanctions on individuals and firms involved in them.

Turkey does not recognise the Cyprus government, regarding it as an exclusively Greek Cypriot administration with no right to maritime boundaries until a comprehensive peace deal for the island has been achieved.

Anastasiades said an initial attempt to deliver a notice of his government's intentions to the Turkish embassy in Athens was denied.

"So, it was sent via other means, there is proof it was received and this gives us the right to recourse."

In February, ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum made the biggest gas find off Cyprus so far, discovering a field holding an estimated five to eight trillion cubic feet. Italy's ENI and Total of France have also been heavily involved in exploring for offshore oil and gas.

'Flagrant breach'

The Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee meanwhile endorsed the controversial deal on maritime boundaries reached between Turkey and Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA).

The accord between Turkey and Libya's internationally recognised government, which mapped out a sea area between the two countries, was signed on Nov. 27.

The agreement would give Turkey access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, paving the way for a final vote in the parliament’s general assembly later in the day.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the agreement last week with the Tripoli-based government, led by Fayez Sarraj, which controls some of the country's west. The two also signed a security cooperation agreement.

The deals sparked outrage in the Libyan parliament, which is based in the east and is aligned with the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The parliament denounced the agreements as a “flagrant breach” of Libya’s security and sovereignty, saying they would grant the Turkish government the right to use Libyan airspace and waters as well as build military bases on Libyan soil.

Greece, Cyprus and Egypt have also criticized the boundary agreement, calling it a serious breach of international law that has only added tension to the ongoing dispute over oil-and-gas drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Libya's neighbour Egypt has dismissed the deal as "illegal". Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the agreement would threaten a UN-led peace process in Libya, adding that Sarraj did not have the mandate to make the deal in the first place.

Greece said it opposed the accord, but said it and Ankara - both members of NATO - were committed to talks on confidence-building measures.

Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said he discussed the issue and other differences between Greece and Turkey with Erdogan on the sidelines of a NATO summit Wednesday in London, adding that both leaders “noted disagreements.”

"I want to reassure the Greek people that difficulties with Turkey existed, exist and will exist. But I assess that, provided the two sides show goodwill, these will be overcome," Mitsotakis said.

Tensions are already running high between Athens and Ankara over the long-running territorial dispute in Cyprus, which has been exacerbated by the Turkish drilling off the island's coast.

Greece on Tuesday also warned Libya's ambassador to Athens that if he failed to provide clarifications to the Greek government over the maritime deal he could be expelled, a Greek government spokesman said.

Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two competing governments, one in the east, based in Benghazi, and the other in the west, in Tripoli. While Haftar's LNA and the eastern government enjoy the support of France, Russia and key Arab countries, the Tripoli-based GNA of Sarraj is backed by Italy, Turkey and Qatar.