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Turkey, Greece Play War of Words Games Over Military Exercises

Αssociated Press

Greece s Prime Minister Kyriakos, centre, speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, second left, during their meeting in Athens, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS -- After Turkey said it would conduct military exercises on Greece's national Oct. 28 holiday and then said it wouldn't, it then said it would, adding further fuel to a fire started with plans to hunt for oil and gas off Greek islands or whether the war games were on or off now.

Turkey's apparent double about-face came hours after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who had refused to intervene over constant violations by Turkey of Greek airspace and waters, said the two countries agreed not to provoke each other with war games on each other's national celebrations.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Turkey's move showed it was an "unreliable" partner when it comes to negotiations after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent an energy research vessel and warships off the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

That happened as soon as Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis pulled back his demand the European Union impose sanctions, Erdogan seizing the moment to send his ships back, founding Greece and the bloc's leaders who admitted they don't know what to do now.

"Over the last few days, Turkey has been making a persistent effort to prove that not only is it a troublemaker in our wider region, but it is also a completely unreliable interlocutor," Petsas said.

They are NATO alleged allies but Turkey has bought a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system that could compromise the alliance's defense and be used against Greece in a conflict as fears mount that shooting could start.

Turkey has sent a seismic research vessel, the Oruc Reis, to prospect for energy reserves on the seabed in an area Greece that claims is on its own continental shelf and where it has exclusive economic rights. Turkey disputes the claim.

The spat has led to warships from the two sides facing off in the area, leading to fears of open conflict, accidental or otherwise and the EU said it would give Turkey until the end of the year to find a resolution with Greece or it might impose sanctions, a tactic the bloc is reluctant to use.

On Oct. 23, Stoltenberg said both Greece and Turkey were canceling military exercises scheduled for this week on each other's national holidays, and described the move as "steps in the right direction, they help reduce the risks of incidents and accidents."

But Petsas said Oct. 26 that hours after that statement was made, Turkey issued a new maritime safety warning, known as a NAVTEX, announcing a military exercise during Greece's Oct. 28 holiday.

Adding to the confusion, another report said both countries agreed to call off the exercises they had planned to conduct but it was uncertain whether they would continue or what was going on.

The day marks the anniversary of Oct. 28, 1940, when Greece rejected an ultimatum by Italy to allow Axis forces to enter Greece, thus marking Greece's official entry into World War II.

The government spokesman also said Turkey had issued a NAVTEX for more research to be carried out in an area "covering sections of the Greek continental shelf" south of the Greek island of Rhodes.

The Greek Foreign Ministry said Turkey’s plan to survey waters south of the Greek island of Rhodes “essentially further undermines the prospect of a constructive dialogue,” reported the Bloomberg news agency.

Turkey dismissed the claim as “groundless,” saying its survey ship will ply through an area that lies entirely within its own continental shelf, claiming Greek waters under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes.

Greece maintains that islands must be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf, in line with the United Nations Law of the Sea, which Turkey hasn’t signed but invokes to its advantage.

Turkey said that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland and the survey area declared by Turkey is 440 kilometers (230 nautical miles) from mainland Greece and 130 kilometers from Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.

Turkey “is ready for dialogue and cooperation towards a solution based on equity, where the legitimate rights of both Turkey and Turkish-Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean are secured,” the ministry said in a statement.

That was in reference to Turkey already drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot waters off the island where Turkey has occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion.

“We also expect Greece to desist from devising factitious grounds and extending preconditions in order to avoid engaging in dialogue with Turkey,” the Turkish ministry said, challenging Greece.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, replying to a question at a news briefing in Athens where he said Greece has the right to a 12-mile nautical limit, said “if someone suddenly asks us to mediate using our relations with one or another party, of course we will be ready to consider such a possibility.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)