Turkey formally requested an explanation from Israel on Thursday after an announcement by the Turkish military that an Israeli plane had violated Turkish Cypriot airspace on May 14 and been chased away by Turkish fighter jets.
The incident has interrupted a relative calm in Turkish-Israeli relations following a period of high tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a deadly Israeli raid on an international flotilla on May 31, 2010, which resulted in the killings of nine activists, including eight Turks and one Turkish American.
Turkey has expelled the Israeli envoy and cut military ties with Israel to protest Israeli refusal to apologize for the killings. Despite the lingering dispute, tension has subsided recently amid a crisis in Syria. Both Turkey and Israel say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave power.
In a statement released late on Wednesday, the Turkish military said the Israeli plane violated the airspace of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) over its territorial waters five times between 11:05 a.m. and 12:49 p.m. (0805-0949 GMT) on May 14. It said the type of the plane could not be specified. Two 2X-F16 planes taking off from an air base in İncirlik in southern Turkey following a “scramble alert” flew to the Turkish Cypriot coast and prevented further violation of the KKTC airspace by the Israeli plane, the statement said.
It is not clear why the Israeli plane was flying over the KKTC coasts, but according to speculation in the Turkish media, the plane was spying on Turkey's oil and gas exploration efforts under way in the area.
Incident linked to hydrocarbon drilling rift?
Turkey and Israel are at odds over a 2010 Israeli-Greek Cypriot deal demarcating exclusive economic zones between the countries in order to pave the way for oil and gas exploration. The Greek Cypriot government began drilling for hydrocarbon reserves in September, drawing an angry protest from Turkey which says the riches of the island belong to the Turkish Cypriots as well.
The Turkish Petroleum Company (TPAO), with a license from the KKTC government, began an onshore exploratory drilling for oil and gas in Turkish Cyprus in April, a move protested by the Greek Cypriot government.
On Thursday, Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Hüseyin Özgürgün warned of more tensions over hydrocarbon drilling in the eastern Mediterranean after reports that the Greek Cypriot administration is assessing international bids for hydrocarbon drilling in a second round of licensing for offshore drilling launched in February.
Özgürgün said the TPAO has been given the license by the KKTC government to drill in some of the areas subject to the latest round of licensing by the Greek Cypriot administration. “Those who cooperate with the Greek Cypriot administration should know that they would operate in a disputed area,” Özgürgün said.
Turkey, which sent troops to Cyprus in the wake of a coup backed by the Greek military junta to unite Cyprus with Greece in 1974, still maintains some 35,000 troops in the Turkish-run north of the island. UN-backed efforts to reunite the Turkish and Greek zones of the island have failed repeatedly.