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Israel tells energy companies to hold fire on Cyprus gas project

JERUSALEM, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Israel's Energy Ministry has advised three energy companies not to start work on the Aphrodite gas field off Cyprus until the two countries reach agreement over ownership of the reserves.

Cyprus and Israel have been in dispute for several years over the gas reserves that straddle their maritime border, with no guarantee of any immediate resolution.

Cyprus last month signed a 25-year concession with Noble Energy, Shell and Delek Drilling for exploitation of the Aphrodite field, which was first discovered in 2011.

The director general of Israel's Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri, sent a letter to officials at the three companies, saying development must not commence until agreement is reached between the governments of Israel and Cyprus.

The letter dated Nov. 24, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, reiterated Israel's long-standing position that an agreement is needed to "facilitate the fair exploitation and development of the field".

One option that has been raised, Adiri said, was for the licensed companies on both sides to negotiate directly, subject to approval from both governments.

Noble and Delek declined to comment on the letter. Shell did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

There was no immediate comment from the Cypriot government.

The Aphrodite field holds an estimated 4.1 trillion cubic feet of gas. At stake is around 10% of the deposit, which is a fraction of the gas already discovered in Israel. (Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Michele Kambas and Ron Bousso Editing by David Goodman)