NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus' president visited a gas drilling rig off his country on Monday and defended its right to conduct such exploration, despite strong opposition from Turkey which sees the search as disregarding Turkish Cypriot claims to any potential riches.
"My presence here underscores the Cyprus Republic's sovereign rights which we are determined to exercise," Dimitris Christofias said on the rig owned by U.S. company Noble Energy.
Christofias' remark was directed at Turkey which disputes Cyprus' oil and gas search because it doesn't recognize the island as a sovereign country.
Cyprus was split into a Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in 1983 which only Turkey recognizes and keeps 35,000 troops there.
Although the island joined the European Union in 2004, only the internationally recognized south enjoys membership benefits. The dispute also is a key obstacle to Turkey's own troubled EU membership bid.
Talks to reunify Cyprus are now in their fourth year, and Christofias has accused the Turkish side of backtracking on key issues, including how power will be shared under a federation.
Turkish Cypriots accuse Christofias of dithering and rejecting all their proposals.
Turkey warned that drilling may jeopardize the talks, but on Monday Christofias repeated that it could act as an incentive to speed up deal because Turkish Cypriots would share in any gas wealth.
"I want to tell our Turkish Cypriot compatriots that, God willing, this effort will succeed and I want to stress that this is a challenge to Turkey to change its stance so we can solve the Cyprus issue the soonest," Christofias said.
Christofias and a small group of senior government officials flew by helicopter to the rig for a firsthand look at the rig situated about 115 miles (185 kilometers) off the island's south coast.
Noble last week said its preliminary estimate put the gas deposit's size at between 3 to 9 trillion cubic feet of gas, with a 60 percent chance it will successfully recover it.
Exploratory drilling began in September, and Cypriot officials said they will formally announce firm estimates early next month. Commerce Minister Praxoulla Antoniadou has said that a trillion cubic feet of gas would be enough to meet the country's energy needs for three decades.
Christofias said the drilling is "going well" and that a second licensing round for exploratory drilling elsewhere inside Cyprus' 17,000 square-mile (51,000 square-kilometer) exclusive economic zone would be announced "shortly."
"This is an effort which will ensure — if it succeeds — the life, future and welfare of future generations," said Christofias, adding that bringing any gas to shore and using it will take "a few years."
Regional tensions were stoked recently after Turkey dispatched a warship-escorted research vessel to look for gas deposits in the area in retaliation to the Cypriot government's move.
Ankara also signed a maritime accord with the Turkish Cypriots and said it would pursue its own drilling which Christofias denounced as "actions outside international law."
"We are strictly moving within the framework of international law and that's what we're doing with Noble and with all those we're working with," Christofias said.