Cyprus says Turkish warships continue to block drilling rig

In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 children play on a beach with a drilling platform seen in the background, on the outskirts of Larnaca port, in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Turkish warships on maneuvers in the MediterraneanThe Associated Press
In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 children play on a beach with a drilling platform seen in the background, on the outskirts of Larnaca port, in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Turkish warships on maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea have blocked a rig belonging to the Italian energy firm ENI from reaching an area off Cyprus to start searching for gas, officials said Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. Cyprus' Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told state broadcaster RIK that the rig has halted its journey heading south of Cyprus and was waiting for directions from ENI. He says Cypriot authorities are in contact with the company and the Italian government. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Turkey faced criticism Monday after its warships continued to impede a rig from reaching a location off Cyprus where Italian energy company Eni is scheduled to drill for gas.

Cyprus government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides told state broadcaster RIK that the rig remains anchored about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the drilling target off the island nation's southeastern coast.

He said both the government and Eni are focused on ensuring that drilling goes ahead as planned.

The Turkish warships also prevented other merchant vessels from approaching the area, citing ongoing military maneuvers, Christodoulides said. Cyprus says a Turkish notice blocking off the area for military activity violates international law and is legally invalid.

In 1974, Cyprus was divided into a Greek Cypriot south, where the internationally recognized government is seated, and a Turkish Cypriot north that only Turkey recognizes and where over 35,000 Turkish troops are stationed.

Turkey opposes the oil drilling, saying it disregards the rights of breakaway Turkish Cypriots to the island's natural resources.

The Cypriot government says it has a sovereign right to drill for gas and that if the search is successful, any income would be shared equitably if the island is reunified.

Greece's foreign ministry condemned what it said was Turkey's disregard for international law and the "blatant violation" of Cyprus' sovereign rights.

It also said that Turkey's "provocative" behavior wasn't appropriate for a country that has worked to join the European Union membership.

The EU cautioned Turkey to respect the territory of its member states and to avoid ratcheting up tensions. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the southern part enjoys full membership benefits.

"Turkey needs to commit unequivocally to good neighborly relations and avoid any kind of source of friction, threat or action directed against a member state" European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk echoed Andreeva. In a post on his official Twitter account, Tusk said he spoke to Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and called on Turkey to "avoid threats or actions" against EU members and to commit to "peaceful dispute settlement."

Turkey has in the past routinely issued notices binding areas south of Cyprus for naval drills in response to the island nation's hydrocarbons search. But it's the first time that it has taken such a step to prevent drilling.

Last week, Cyprus said Eni had discovered a potentially sizeable gas deposit at another target southwest of the island.

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Lorne Cooke in Brussels contributed to this report.

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