Turkey navy forces back Italian drillship: Cyprus

Five Turkish warships threatened to engage an Italian drillship Friday and forced it to turn back after it tried to break a two-week blockade off Cyprus, Cypriot officials said.

Turkey navy forces back Italian drillship: Cyprus
Eni chief Claudio Descalzi. File photo: AFP

The drillship from Italy's energy giant Eni has been halted in the island's politically sensitive waters since February 9th when Turkish warships stopped it from heading to explore in a contentious area, claiming they were conducting manoeuvres.

Government spokesman Victoras Papadopoulos told the Cyprus News Agency that as the rig tried to make progress again Friday “it was blocked by five Turkish warships, and after threats to use force and engage with the drillship…it was forced to turn back”.

Eni chief Claudio Descalzi played down the two-week standoff, telling journalists in Italy that his company would not abandon its exploration off Cyprus but await a diplomatic solution to start operations.

“We are used to the possibility of disputes. We didn't leave Libya or other countries where there had been complex situations,” he said.

“This is the last of my worries. We are completely calm,” said the Eni chief executive.

“It is very probable that in the next few days we will have to move” the ship to another country as originally planned, Descalzi said.

“And then we will return (to Cyprus) to await a solution from international diplomacy.”

However, Cypriot Energy Minister George Lakkotrypis said that diplomatic efforts, notably by the European Union, had so far failed to break the standoff.

“We left room for diplomacy, hoping that a solution could be found… Today we made one last effort… but that was not possible because of Turkey's stance,” he told the private television station Sigma.

The drillship has now headed to the Cypriot port of Limassol and will likely spend several days there before sailing to fulfil contractual obligations in Morocco, Lakkotrypis told the Cyprus News Agency.

On Wednesday, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, said Nicosia would continue its energy exploration regardless of Turkish threats.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned foreign energy companies not to “overstep the mark” in disputed waters off the coast of the divided island.

Ankara has been stringent in defending the claims of Turkish Cypriots for a share of energy resources, despite Greek Cypriot assurances that they would benefit both communities.

The standoff over energy resources risks further complicating stalled efforts to reunify Cyprus following the collapse of UN-brokered talks last year.

READ ALSO: Italy's Eni in Cyprus gas deal


EU approves Turkey refugee fund after Italy row solved

The EU said on Wednesday it had agreed on how to finance a €3 billion ($3.3 billion) deal to aid Syrian refugees in Turkey, in exchange for Ankara's help stemming the flow of migrants, after resolving a dispute with Italy.

EU approves Turkey refugee fund after Italy row solved
The fund is intended to aid Syrian refugees in Turkey. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had stalled on signing off on the deal because of questions about how the accord would work, but EU sources told AFP that Rome had given its approval on Wednesday.

Under the deal the European Commission, the EU executive, will contribute €1 billion to Turkey while the bloc's 28 member states will contribute two billion, the commission announced.

Germany is the country making the biggest contribution to the fund with €427 million, followed by Britain with €327 million and France with €309 million, EU sources said.

“I welcome the agreement by the Member States on the details of the refugee facility for Turkey,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in a statement.

“The money we are putting on the table will directly benefit Syrian refugees in Turkey, helping to improve their access to education and healthcare in particular.

“I also welcome the measures already taken by the Turkish authorities to give Syrian refugees access to the labour market and to reduce the flows.”

Turkey – the main launching point for the one million refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe last year – has promised to cut the flow of people as part of the deal agreed with the EU at a summit in November.

Italian barbs

The deal comes four days after Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks to break the logjam on the deal with Turkey.

Italy had questioned how much of the money should come from the EU budget, and how much control the bloc will have over how Ankara spends the funds.

Renzi has also traded barbs with Brussels about claims that Italy has been slow to set up so-called “hotspot” centres for registering and taking photos and fingerprints of newly arrived migrants.

But in a diplomatic show of unity on Friday after Renzi repeatedly criticised “German dominance” in EU affairs, both leaders said that the migrant crisis can only be solved if the 28 members of the bloc work together.

Across Europe, debate has raged on how to handle the biggest wave of migrants and refugees since World War II, many of them fleeing the war in Syria.

In January alone 360 people drowned while making the risky crossing of the Mediterranean, while more than 3,700 died in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Greece, where most of the refugees and migrants arrive, is under pressure from Brussels to improve its control of the EU's external borders, although Athens says there is little more it can do.

Italy and Greece were the main beneficiaries of an EU deal last year to redistribute 160,000 refugees around the bloc and ease the burden of frontline states, but only just over 400 have so far been relocated.