NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cyprus said its plans to explore for gas were non-negotiable, accusing its rival Turkey on Friday of stirring up controversy over Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves as a pretext for "expansionist designs" on the island.
Cyprus is locked in a row with Turkey over its decision to explore for natural gas south of the ethnically-partitioned island, close to one of the world's largest gas discoveries of the past decade.
Turkey, the only country to recognize a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus, says the island's internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government has no authority to explore for reserves.
Turkey this week dispatched an exploration vessel and military escorts close to an area where U.S. company Noble Energy started drilling almost two weeks ago.
"I wish to underline again to all those who attempt to question this right of the Republic of Cyprus; our sovereign rights are non-negotiable," President Demetris Christofias said in a public address.
Noble has been commissioned by EU member Cyprus to drill in an area termed Block 12, some 160 km south of the island. Turkey has pledged to drill for gas on behalf of Turkish Cypriots unless the Greek Cypriots stop.
Israel is also drilling nearby; its Leviathan field was described as the world's largest of the past decade. The issue has emerged as a further bone of contention between Turkey and the Jewish state.
Once an ally of Israel, Ankara has downgraded ties in recent weeks over Israel's refusal to apologies for a deadly raid last year on a Turkish aid flotilla going to Gaza.
Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek inspired coup, and is now divided east to west by a U.N. controlled buffer zone. Greek Cypriots who live in its south represent Cyprus internationally, and the rift marks an escalation of tensions simmering for years.
"The commotion, threats and interference of Turkey are baseless. They are a pretext, betraying its expansionist designs against Cyprus," Christofias said.
Turkey says the drilling risks derailing peace talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots for eventual reunification. Nicosia maintains the two issues are unrelated, and that any potential discovery should spur reunification efforts because both communities stand to benefit.
(Reporting By Michele Kambas; Editing by Anthony Barker)