CAMLIBEL, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey's president expressed hope Saturday that an undersea pipeline carrying fresh water from Turkey to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of ethnically split Cyprus could help reunify the island amid Greek Cypriot protests that the project is a Turkish ploy to cement its grip on the island.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials inaugurated the pipeline by symbolically turning open a large valve, starting the flow of water through the 107-kilometer (66.5-mile) pipeline at a ceremony at the Mediterranean town of Anamur in Turkey. At a second ceremony in Cyprus, Erdogan, who flew in by helicopter, and other Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials, symbolically pushed buttons to mark the water's arrival at a nearby dam as confetti showered a cheering crowd.
The project is aimed to meet the north's irrigation and drinking waters needs for the next half century, supplying around 2.6 billion cubic feet (75 million cubic meters) of water annually.
Turkey has said the water could be shared with Greek Cypriots once the island is reunified. But Greek Cypriot officials have said the pipeline violates international law, serves to "integrate" the north and to "augment Turkey's influence and control over Cyprus."
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state and only recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence while still maintaining 35,000 troops in the north.
With Turkey geared toward an election on Nov. 1, both ceremonies had the feel of an election campaign. Spectators at a balloon and flag-festooned water treatment plant in the north of the island broke out in a chant in support of Erdogan, who was Turkey's prime minister when the project was initiated.
"Our wish is for the whole of Cyprus to benefit from this water as a result of a fair and lasting solution," Erdogan said. "Let's hope that the waters of (Turkey) lead to an environment where unity takes root and lives forever."
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a cheering, flag-waving crowd at Anamur that Turkey and north Cyprus "have been interlocked in such a way that they will never be separated."
The project comes at a time of renewed peace talks between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.
Akinci said the water would turn the drought-prone island into a "green island."
"When the time comes and by increasing the volume, this water can be shared with the south too. Then it will become a true 'water of peace,'" a reference to the name of the project.
Akinci also said Cyprus could serve as a conduit for east Mediterranean natural gas to Europe. Cyprus has one proven deposit off its southern coast that's estimated to contain more than 4 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The Cyprus government says any future gas revenues could be shared with Turkish Cypriots after a reunification accord is reached.
Ilhame Yildiz, 57, was among several hundred spectators who arrived at a water treatment plant in the north of the island.
"This is good for Cyprus. The government on this side can take water and the government on the other side can take water too," Yildiz said.
Farhan Kul, a 76-year-old from Nicosia, said: "If they give water to south Cyprus, this will help bring peace."
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.