ANKARA — The Turkish and Greek defense ministers met Thursday on the sidelines of a NATO meeting amid renewed tensions between the two neighbors, Turkey’s defense ministry said.
The discussion in Brussels between Turkey’s Hulusi Akar and Nikos Panagiotopoulos of Greece focused on the “importance of continuing the dialogue in order to reduce tensions,” according to a statement from the ministry.
They discussed the need to keep the channels of communication open, to focus on a positive agenda and bilateral and regional cooperation, according to the statement.
The meeting comes amid a new escalation in tensions between the NATO allies that have a history of disputes over a range of issues such as mineral exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and rival claims in the Aegean Sea.
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Greece to demilitarize islands in the Aegean, saying he was “not joking.” He spoke during Turkish wargames near the Greek islands that included an amphibious landing scenario.
Ankara says Athens has been building a military presence on the islands in violation of treaties under which they were ceded to Greece in the 20th century after a long period of occupation by the Turks — or by Italy in the case of Rhodes and Kos.
Greece counters that the islands need defenses given threats of war from Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest military and maintains a large landing fleet on its Aegean coast.
Greece’s state-run television said Panagiotopoulos spoke briefly with Akar after they stood next to each other for a photo of the NATO leaders. It quoted Panagiotopoulos as telling Akar: “We can’t move forward if you continue with this rhetoric and these policies.”
Giannis Oikonomou, the Greek government spokesman, said Thursday “Greece has no intention of engaging in any way that would heighten the tension in the region.”
This week, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis sought to reassure his compatriots, saying that despite strong rhetoric from Turkey, relations are not at the low of 2020 when the neighbors’ warships were shadowing each other in the eastern Mediterranean.