Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan Wednesday described offshore gas drilling by estranged ally Israel and Cyprus as "madness", raising the stakes in a confrontation over potentially huge deposits in the eastern Mediterranean.
The quarrel over gas has escalated in recent weeks as relations between Turkey and Israel abruptly broke down over Israel's refusal to apologize for a deadly raid on a Turkish flotilla last year.
Both Israel and the Greek-speaking government of Cyprus are exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel, which is exploring the seabed through Israeli company Delek Group and American company Noble Energy, has laid claim to Leviathan, a massive deepwater gas field discovered in 2009. Texas-based Noble is also carrying out the drilling operations for Cyprus.
Turkey, increasingly assertive in the region under Erdogan, disputes Israeli and Cypriot offshore territorial claims and says Cyprus should not exploit resources until it resolves a stand-off with its breakaway Turkish-speaking north.
Turkey downgraded diplomatic and trade ties with the Jewish state this month after Israel refused to apologize for killing nine Turks in a 2010 raid on the Turkish flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip.
"The Greek Cypriot administration and Israel are engaging in oil exploration madness in the Mediterranean," Turkish state news agency Anatolian quoted Erdogan as telling Turkish journalists in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly meeting.
"Actually, the Greek Cypriot administration's drilling activity is nothing but sabotage of the negotiation process between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots," he added.
The drilling controversy has added a potentially explosive element to the decades-long dispute over Cyprus. The island was split by the Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek inspired coup. Turkey is the only country to recognize a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north, where it maintains a military presence.
Turkey has said it would carry out its own energy surveys with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state - under escort by its war ships if necessary - if Cyprus pressed ahead with drilling.
Erdogan again emphasised Turkish military prowess yesterday: "Our assault boats and frigates are already in the region," Anatolian quoted him as saying.
Erdogan said last week that Turkish warships could be sent to the eastern Mediterranean at any time and Israel could not do whatever it wants there.
Cyprus has said it will block negotiations Turkey began in 2005 to join the European Union if Ankara continues to oppose its gas exploration.