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Turkish ships said to force Israeli research vessel out of Cypriot waters

According to TV report, Turkish navy intercepts Israeli boat, orders it to leave; Turkey’s recent maritime deal with Libya has fueled regional tensions over drilling rights

File: Turkish navy ships in 2015 (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
File: Turkish navy ships in 2015 (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Turkish navy ships intercepted an Israeli research ship in Cypriot waters two weeks ago and drove it away, Channel 13 news reported Saturday, quoting senior Israeli officials.

The ship Bat Galim, of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institution, was approached by Turkish vessels while conducting research in coordination with Cypriot officials and the Cypriot government, the report said.

The unnamed senior officials said the vessels radioed the Israeli ship, demanded to know its business in the area — despite not having jurisdiction there — and then ordered it leave. The Israeli ship had no choice but to comply and depart.

Turkey has recently taken steps to increase its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. It signed a maritime border agreement with Libya in November that has fueled regional tensions with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt over oil and gas drilling rights in the region.

The three countries, which lie between Turkey and Libya, blasted the maritime border accord, saying it was inconsistent with international law. Greece has expelled the Libyan ambassador over the pact.

Meanwhile, Ankara has warned it will use its military forces if necessary to halt any exploratory gas drilling in waters off Cyprus that it claims as its own.

The Channel 13 report noted that tensions could negatively affect Israel’s plans for a submarine pipeline to transfer gas from its offshore reserves to Europe, which is set to pass through Cyprus and Greece’s territorial waters.

The report said an Israeli embassy official in Ankara was called in last week for a conversation, in which Turkish officials warned that the pipeline project would require Turkey’s approval.

“The Turks are trying to establish themselves as the ones running the show [in the region], and that is very worrying,” an official told the network.

Neighbors Greece and Turkey are divided by a series of decades-old issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea. The NATO allies have come to the brink of war three times since the 1970s, including once over drilling rights in the area.

Greece insists the deal with Libya — which has no fully functioning government able to rule across all of its territory — is unenforceable and has stressed that it will protect its sovereign rights.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said he will ask other NATO members at the alliance’s London summit, which was held in the first week of December, to support Greece, in the face of fellow member Turkey’s attempts to encroach on its sovereignty.

Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a state — but does recognize the breakaway Turkish Cypriot entity, the only country to do so — and is conducting exploratory gas drilling in waters where the ethnically divided island nation has exclusive economic rights.

Ankara has said it is defending its rights and those of the Turkish Cypriots to regional energy reserves.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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