Eni executive: drilling off Cyprus could be put on hold

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 15, 2016 file photo, Cypriot Foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides speaks after his statements to the media at the foreign ministry in Nicosia, Cyprus. Kasoulides said on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, that drilling in the specific area could be abandoned if Turkish naval vessels continue to obstruct the rig. For two weeks, Turkish warships have prevented a rig from reaching an area southeast of Cyprus where Italian firm Eni is scheduled to carry out exploratory drilling. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias, File)

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The head of Italian energy firm Eni said Thursday that planned drilling in search of gas off Cyprus could be put on hold until Turkey can be convinced to pull back its warships preventing a rig from reaching the site.

Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi made the remarks after Turkey's energy minister earlier insisted that his country won't allow Cyprus' government to carry out a "unilateral" gas search off the east Mediterranean island as long as breakaway Turkish Cypriots don't share the benefits.

For two weeks, citing naval exercises, Turkish warships have prevented a rig from reaching an area southeast of Cyprus where Eni is scheduled to carry out exploratory drilling.

Descalzi said the matter isn't troubling the company which is used to such difficulties, but that the rig — now anchored around 30 miles from the drilling target — would likely be moved soon for drilling scheduled elsewhere and to give diplomacy a chance to work.

"Since we have to go somewhere else after this well, it's very probable we'll move in these days and secure the exploration," Descalzi said according to the ANSA news agency. "Then, we'll wait for international diplomacy to find a solution."

Turkish Energy Minister Berak Albayrak said that Turkey would block offshore hydrocarbon searches until there is an accord to reunify ethnically split Cyprus.

"As long as a concrete and rational solution is not produced, we have to be effective," Albayrak told an energy forum in Istanbul. "If unilateral exploration is conducted, as Turkey we will not allow it."

Turkey says drilling ignores the rights of breakaway Turkish Cypriots to the island's natural resources and also claims part of the areas which the Cypriot government has opened up for drilling licensing.

The Cypriot government says it is its sovereign right to search for gas and will benefit all Cypriot citizens with potential proceeds deposited in a sovereign fund that will be split equitably once the island is reunified. But it insists there can be no peace talks if Turkey continues to unlawfully interfere with drilling activity.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974. Turkey doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state, but is the only country to recognize the independence of Turkish Cypriots in the island's northern third.

Outgoing Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said Thursday that planned exploratory drilling in other areas, where companies including France's Total and ExxonMobil are licensed to carry out drilling, must continue.

Earlier this month, the Cypriot government said Eni had discovered a potentially substantial gas deposit in an area southwest of the island.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Nicole Winfeld in Rome, Italy contributed to this report.

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