ATHENS – His helicopter followed by Turkish fighter jets while he was not protected by the Greek Air Force, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s official photographer snapped photos enroute to an Independence Day celebration on the Aegean island of Agathonisi.
The images, which were posted on Militaire.gr website, were reportedly shot by the photographer accompanying the prime minister during his trip and also show Tsipras using his cell phone camera to record the incident before Greek fighters arrived to protect him.
The incident led Greece’s Foreign Ministry to hand Turkish Ambassador in Athens Burak Ozugergin a demarche, an official protest at the alleged harassment in which the Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jets, which violated Greek airspace, were intercepted by Greek fighters and came within four mile of the helicopter, whose pilot took evasive action.
The Turkish fighters, flying at a height of 6,000 feet approached within 4 miles of Tsipras’s helicopter, which was approaching Agathonisi at a height of 2,000 feet. The Chinook flew lower to avoid the Turkish fighters, which were intercepted by Greek F-16s, the newspaper Kathimerini and other media reports said.
Tsipras referred to the incident at Agathonisi. “Coming here, I was harassed by Turkish planes that forced the helicopter I was on to take evasive action and for what purpose?” he asked, as Turkey has continued to up provocations in the Aegean between the two NATO allies, without any rebuke from defense alliance.
“Greece is a force for peace and cooperation, this is the message I want to send to the neighbors, cooperation and growing together, not fake bravado which only waster kerosene. These stupid acts are meaningless. They should know the Prime Minister will reach even the most isolated (island) by swimming, if necessary. We have open arms, for dialogue and understanding, but, if necessary, we will do what our forefathers did,” Tsipras added, referring to the 198th anniversary of Greeks’ taking up arms against the Ottoman occupiers to fight for independence.
A Turkish security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the paper there was “no question” of any harassment attempt by Turkish jets, adding that the planes were carrying out “routine duties,” without explaining why they were in Greek airspace.
The incident occurred just days after the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers, Giorgos Katrougalos and Mevlut Cavusoglu, agreed that delegations from both countries would meet to discuss confidence-building measures based on an accord signed in 1988 between Greece’s Karolos Papoulias and his counterpart Mesut Yilmaz.
On the same day, which is also a religious holiday in Greece, Turkish jets also violated Greek national airspace 47 times in the eastern Aegean, said Kathimerini. The country’s defense ministers were trying to cool tensions too.
That was before Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the Aegean Sea and Cyprus are in Turkey’s territorial waters. “We control the sea and the seabed. The seas. The Black Sea, the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean which also includes Cyprus,” Akar reportedly said.
“These areas lie within our sphere of interest… we have the responsibility of ensuring peace and calm,” he was quoted as saying, according to media reports.
Akar’s comments came after Greek Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos said Turkey has rights to look for energy in waters between the countries. Bfore he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Antalya, Turkey was entitled to participate in hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in the eastern Mediterranean.
Katrougalos and Cavusoglu agreed that Turkey should not be excluded from hunting for oil and gas even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t recognize Greece’s Continental Shelf, Laws of the Sea and sent warships off Cyprus in a bid to keep foreign companies from drilling in that country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) parts of which Turkey also doesn’t recognize.
Greece said Turkey’s activities in the Aegean violated a 1988 accord, which stipulates that both countries refrain from military activities and avoid conducting military exercises during peak tourism periods and main national and religious holidays.
Greek officials reportedly see the violations as a demonstration of Turkey’s generally aggressive stance and not simply campaign posturing by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of local elections on March 31.