ATHENS – Turkey's move to put energy research ships in Greek waters off the island of Kastellorizo has Greece's military on high alert and Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis urging European Union sanctions.
The EU, reluctant to confront Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for fear he will flood the bloc with more refugees and migrants through Greece's borders and islands, has again backed down and offered only more talk later on.
Greek military units scrambled and the Hellenic Navy began massing ships after Turkey issued a so-called NAVTEX warning other vessels to stay away from a large part of th Greek continental shelf south off Kastellorizo.
That will run from July 21-August 2 with Turkey saying the Oruc Reis research ship will begin the first phase of hunting for oil and gas off Kastellorizo and with Erdogan saying the same would happen off Crete at some point.
Turkish authorities said the Oruc Reis and two support vessels would carry out operations as well south of the islands of Rhodes and Karpathos after it made a maritime deal with Libya dividing the seas between them and claiming waters off Greek islands in a deal no other country recognizes.
The move was seen as a dangerous escalation is already near-conflict tension and came as Turkey offered diplomacy without concessions and then began the plan to move into Greek waters with Greece warning there would be a commensurate response.
“The imposition of sanctions by the EU against Turkey will be a one-way street. It is up to Turkey to choose what relationship it wants to have with Greece, with Cyprus, with Europe. But I think at the moment it seems to be choosing the wrong path,” he said as he received visiting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Maximos Mansion.
“Regarding Turkey’s drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, we have a very clear position – international law must be respected so progress in EU-Turkey relations is only possible if Ankara stops provocations in the eastern Mediterranean,” Maas said during a visit to Athens, the news agency Reuters reported.
Mitsotakis said that, “Greece is following all developments with absolute readiness,” stressing that “questioning the sovereign rights of Greece and Cyprus is questioning the sovereign rights of Europe,” reported Kathimerini.
In a statement, the Greek Foreign Ministry said the “illegal Turkish NAVTEX is escalating tensions in the region” and showed Turkey's “absolute contempt for international law and the Law of the Sea.”
Greece's Embassy in Ankara filed a a demarche, an official complaint with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was apparently ignored as Greece turned to the EU, the United Nations, and NATO, the defense alliance to which both belong and which has refused to intervene over constant Turkish violations of Greek airspace and waters.
Greece then issued a NAVTEX in response to Turkey's, Greece saying it would conduct seismic surveys in an area of sea between Cyprus and Crete.
The NAVTEX, issued by the Iraklio station in Crete, said that an “unauthorized station” has broadcast a navtex message in the Greek Navtex service area “referring to unauthorized and illegal activity in an area that overlaps the Greek continental shelf. All marines are requested to disregard (the Turkish) Navtex,” it said.
“We call on Turkey to immediately end its illegal actions that violate our sovereign rights and undermine peace and security in the area,” the ministry’s statement read, almost certainly a futile gesture as Erdogan has shown only contempt for critics.
He said Turkey does “not need anyone’s permission for our seismic vessels and floating drilling rigs,” and that his country is acting within the framework of Law of the Sea and “will continue in the same way,” although Turkey doesn't recognize that law.
Mitsotakis met with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and was briefed over the telephone by Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos and the chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff (GEETHA), Konstantinos Floros, who cut short a visit to Cyprus, the paper said.
But Turkey rejected claims by Greece that its oil-and-gas research vessels were encroaching on Greek waters in the Eastern Mediterranean and said it would continue to defend its legitimate rights and interests in the region.
A Foreign Ministry statement, however, also renewed a call by Turkey for dialogue to resolve the dispute between the two NATO allies after Turkey said that would be based on the conditions it would make no concessions, indicating Greece would have to.
Turkey has accused Greece of trying to exclude it from the benefits of oil and gas finds in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, arguing that sea boundaries for commercial exploitation should be divided between the Greek and Turkish mainland and not include the Greek islands on an equal basis.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry denounced what it called a “maximalist continental shelf claim,” insisting that they were “against international law, legal precedent and court decisions,” invoking only those in Turkey's benefit.
The ministry statement added that the maritime area where Oruc Reis would conduct research was “within the limits of the Continental Shelf that our country has notified to the United Nations,” which has also refused to intervene.
Turkey said the research was allowed under an exploration license the Turkish government gave to the Turkish state-run oil company, TPAO, in 2012, the same premise being used for drilling off Cyprus which has gone on without repercussions.
There have been concerns over a possible Turkish intervention in the East Med in a bid to prevent an agreement on the delineation of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between Greece and Egypt which is currently being discussed between officials of the two countries, added Kathimerini.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that Turkey would start seismic research and drilling operations in contested waters that are covered by the deal with Libya the UN hasn't accepted so far.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)