NICOSIA: A senior U.S. diplomat Friday backed gas exploration off Cyprus, as ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum started drilling despite opposition from Turkey.
Ankara has warned international firms against exploration in the disputed waters off the Mediterranean island, but Cyprus has pushed ahead with energy deals.
Francis Fannon, the State Department's foreign energy official, said Washington had a "long-standing position of recognizing Cyprus' right to develop resource wealth."
"We view energy as a catalyst for cooperation, economic development and to benefit all the people in the region and Cyprus has a meaningful role to that end," he told reporters after meeting the country's energy minister, George Lakkotrypis.
ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum commenced drilling operations off Cyprus Friday, in Block 10 of the country's Exclusive Economic Zone, the energy ministry said.
Ankara argues that Cyprus has no mandate for offshore exploration without a deal between the EU member and the breakaway Turkish-backed north of the island.
Fannon, who will also visit Israel and Egypt, said the U.S. believes "resource wealth should be shared with all communities on the island equitably in the context of a comprehensive settlement" to reunify Cyprus.
Earlier this month Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described those who defy Ankara as "bandits of the sea" who would face a similar response as his country's foes in Syria.
In February, a drill ship contracted by Italy's ENI to explore off Cyprus abandoned its mission after Turkish warships blocked its path.
Cyprus last month invited Total, ENI and ExxonMobil to bid for unclaimed Block 7 in Cyprus' EEZ.