Cyprus' commerce minister says that oil firms from Russia, Italy, France, Canada, Malaysia, Israel and the U.S. are among 15 companies and consortiums seeking to carry out exploratory drilling for gas deposits off the island's southern coast.

Neoklis Sylikiotis said interest in a second licensing round that concluded Friday "exceeded expectations by far" after U.S. firm Noble Energy announced last December the discovery of an offshore natural gas field that it estimated at 5-8 trillion cubic feet (140-230 billion cubic meters).

But the gas search has rankled with neighboring Turkey, which doesn't recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country. Ankara says the search ignores the rights of Turkish Cypriots in the breakaway north of the ethnically split island and has started exploratory drilling of its own there.