ATHENS – Greece called Turkey’s Ambassador to explain increasing provocations in the Aegean after a Turkish patrol boat for the second time in a month bumped into a Greek Naval vessel near the disputed rocky islet of Imia where the two countries almost went to war in 1996.
After warnings from the international community and the US Ambassador there could be an accidental conflict – diplomatic language for military action or even a war – both countries tried to calm fears of an escalation.
But Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras spoke only to Turkish Premier Benali Yildirim, who has no real power, not to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to Athens in December, 2017 for talks that included ways to ratchet down tension that was building after Turkey kept sending F-16 fighter jets into Greek airspace repeatedly and warships past Greek islands.
With Turkish warships blocking an Italian company drillship from getting into waters off Cyprus, where the legitimate government has licensed international companies to hunt for oil and gas, including from the United States and France, jitters were spreading across the waters of the Aegean of a military showdown.
Both Greece and Turkey belong to NATO, which has said or done nothing about ongoing Turkish provocations, nor has the United States, United Nations or European Union that Turkey wants to join even as it refuses to recognize Cyprus and bars its ships and planes.
No one was hurt in the collision unlike casualties in 1996 when three Greek servicemen were killed off Imia when their helicopter went down under still-unsettled circumstances with suggestions it was covered up to prevent war.
Greece’s Coast Guard said the Greek vessel suffered damage to the stern where the Turkish boat hit it with its bows as it claimed the Turkish vessel was conducting “dangerous maneuvers,” and struck the Greek vessel inside Greek waters.
The Coast Guard vessels were east of the uninhabited islets — known as Imia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish — which both countries claim and are prime fishing spots, attracting fishing boats from both countries. Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos voiced concern but appealed for restraint.
“Right now there is no need to pour more oil on the flames. What is needed is calm, level-headedness and a serious handling of the situation,” he said.
“Recently we have been seeing increasingly provocative behaviour from Turkey, which is a source of very serious concern to us,” he told private Alpha radio.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Imia, known as Kardak in Turkey, “belong to our country,” and complained Greece has heightened its military presence in the area.
The Turkish vessel rammed the Greek boat intentionally after receiving clear instructions, Kathimerini said it was told by sources it didn’t identify, although not whether it was a test to see if Greece would respond or back away.
Exercises in the region by the armed forces of both countries have led to a relatively large military buildup throughout the Aegean and Turkey has issued so-called NAVTEX advisories that it would be conducting live fire exercises near Cyprus.
Greece said that Yildirim denied the incident at Imia was intentional, while Tsipras reportedly told him Turkey’s actions were a violation of international law that undermines Greek-Turkish relations and Turkey’s EU hopes, which have been floundering for more than a decade and are opposed by Germany.
Yildirim later said the countries agreed to ease tensions through dialogue and that he told Tsipras that Greece must restrain itself even though it was Turkey which caused the incident.
Yildirim said he told Tsipras in a telephone call that Greece must refrain from acts that strain ties, adding that the Aegean should be a “sea of friendship.”
He said: “We have reached an agreement that as of now (tensions) are settled politically and diplomatically in a more calm way, through mutual understanding and with the channels of dialogue constantly open.”
Yildirim said the Greek and Turkish military chiefs would meet on the margins of a NATO meeting in Brussels in May.
The US State Department urged both sides to “take steps that will de-escalate the current situation,” but otherwise stayed out ot if.
CALLING THE DEFENSE MINISTER
Curiously, there was no comment from Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are junior partners in the coalition led by his ideological rival, the Radical Left SYRIZA of Tsipras.
Kammenos has visited Imia previously to lay wreaths – by helicopter and boat – near the spot where the Greek helicopter went down in 1996 and has taunted Turkey, whose Presidential advisor warned that any Greek who steps foot on the islet – including the Prime Minister – would have his legs and arms broken.
The bombastic Kammenos went silent after Tsipras said his government would give away the name Macedonia to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in a new composite.
Kammenos opposes the move but pretty much has disappeared from public view as the storm drew hundreds of thousands of protesters against the name giveaway with rallies in Thessaloniki and Athens and as SYRIZA was squeezing him to give in.
CYPRUS SHOWDOWN LOOMS
Erdogan upped the ante when he warned Greece, Cyprus and international companies exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean not to “step out of line” and encroach on Turkey’s rights as his Navy blockaded them from entering Cypriot waters, which he said belong to Turkey, which doesn’t recognize the Law of the Sea.
“We recommend that foreign companies don’t allow themselves to be an instrument of issues that surpass their limits and strength, by trusting the Greek Cypriot side,” he said. “Their show of strength lasts only until they see our ships and our planes,” he said.
“Our warships and security units are following all developments in the region with the instruction to do whatever is necessary,” he said.
Turkey opposes the drilling, which it says disregards the rights of Turks who have unlawfully occupied the northern third of the island since a 1974 invasion. Talks to unify the island have failed for decades and collapsed again in July, 2017 when Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades walked away from negotiations after Turkey said it would never remove an army it keeps there and wanted the right to militarily intervene.
The Cypriot government says it has a sovereign right to drill, and that if the search is successful, any income would be shared equitably if the island is reunified, although no resumption of talks has been scheduled despite the recent re-election of Anastasiades, who said nothing about Erdogan’s statements and has taken no action to force out the Turkish warships with Cyprus hopelessly outgunned and the international community steering clear of the troubles.
Two Italian Navy ships were being sent to Cyprus but the energy company ENI said it would pull out of the deal unless there was a resolution. ENI Chief Executive Claudio Descalzi told Italian media that, “We cannot wait forever. There is a difference between Cyprus, Turkey and the EU and it must be resolved,” as soon as possible.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani called on Turkey to “refrain from engaging in dangerous provocations in Cyprus’ territorial waters.”
“There’s no reason for anyone to worry,” Anastasiades told reporters in Nicosia. “Actions are being taken in such a way so as to avert any kind of crisis,” but wouldn’t explain them nor why people shouldn’t be worried about Turkish military action.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said EU authorities were monitoring the incident in the Aegean closely and that Turkey needs to “commit unequivocally” to good neighborly relations and avoid any “friction, threat or action” against an EU member state.
“Opportunistic attempts concerning gas exploration off Cyprus and concerning Aegean islets are not escaping our attentions,” Erdogan said.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)