France and Cyprus are conducting naval maneuvers off Cyprus as the east Mediterranean island nation is embroiled in a tense dispute with Turkey over offshore gas drilling.
Two French frigates heading to Syria plan to take part in “routine” exercises in Cypriot waters this weekend, a French military spokesman, Col. Frederic Barbry, said Saturday.
One ship arrived on Thursday and the other is due to arrive on Sunday.
France, part of the US-led military coalition, maintains a naval presence off the coast of Syria for monitoring and coordination purposes, Barbry said.
The maneuvers come as a Turkish drill ship, which is escorted by warships, is poised to start drilling inside waters where Cyprus has licensed French energy company Total and Italian partner Eni to explore for gas.
Another warship-escorted Turkish drill ship began drilling in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone in June.
The European Union and other countries have condemned Turkey’s gas search inside Cypriot waters as illegal.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted on Saturday that the joint exercises would enable Cyprus to “assume its responsibilities in its sovereign waters.”
Turkey, which doesn’t recognize the statehood of Cyprus, has insisted it’s acting to protect its economic interests and those of breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the north of the ethnically divided island.
It claims that 44 percent of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone falls within Turkey’s continental shelf.
Cyprus Defense Minister Savvas Angelides said the maneuvers send a message about his country “exercising its rights within its exclusive economic zone” as the government strives to counter Turkey’s actions through legal, political and diplomatic means.
Eni and Total together are licensed to carry out exploratory drilling in seven of Cyprus’ 13 blocks that make up its exclusive economic zone. Eni said it expects the work to begin in the first half of next year.