ATHENS – Greece accused neighbor Turkey of undermining efforts to ease a crisis over eastern Mediterranean drilling rights Monday, after Ankara redeployed a survey vessel for new energy exploration in disputed waters — including an area very close to a secluded Greek island.
The move reignited tension over sea boundaries between Greek islands, Cyprus and Turkey’s southern coast which had flared up over the summer, prompting a military build-up, bellicose rhetoric and fears of a confrontation between the two NATO members and historic regional rivals.
The Turkish search vessel, Oruc Reis, left the port of Antalya on Monday for a mission ending Oct. 22.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the vessel was continuing with its “planned and scheduled activities,” adding that the Turkish navy would provide “support and protection” if necessary.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed the development on the phone with European Council President Charles Michel, saying he would bring it up at the next council meeting on Oct. 15-16.
“This new unilateral act is a severe escalation on Turkey’s part,” a government statement quoted Mitsotakis as saying.
Turkey said Greek objections were “unacceptable,” insisting that the research vessel was operating within Turkey's continental shelf — in area just 15 kilometers (nearly 10 miles) from the Turkish coast and 425 kilometers (about 265 miles) from mainland Greece.
Turkey had announced last month that it was pulling the Oruc Reis to shore for maintenance and resupply, saying the move would give “diplomacy a chance.”
“Our expectation from Greece is for it to withdraw its maximalist claims that are contrary to international law ... put an end to its exercises and military activities that increase tensions in the Aegean and the Mediterranean and to enter into a sincere dialogue with us,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
An aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted that while Ankara favored dialogue, “there can be no negotiations if you say ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.’”
Turkey faces the threat of sanctions from the European Union, to which both Greece and Cyprus — an island republic off which Turkey has sent drilling ships — belong.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency and has been mediating between Ankara and Athens, will fly to Cyprus and Greece for talks on Tuesday.
On Monday, the German government said it had “taken note” of Turkey’s announcement on the energy prospecting.
“If there really were exploration in this disputed area of sea, that would be a very regrettable step and, from our point of view, an unwise one,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters in Berlin. “It would set back efforts to reduce tensions ... and it most certainly would be anything but conducive to the continued development of EU-Turkish relations.”
Seibert reiterated Germany’s insistence that “it is important and necessary for all involved to make an effort to prevent escalations and to resolve their differences ... — including the differences on maritime law — as quickly as possible, in dialogue and on the basis of international law.”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said he briefed his EU colleagues on Turkey’s planned “illegal actions” within Greece’s continental shelf south of Kastellorizo, a Greek islet just off Turkey’s southern coast.
“I explained the obvious, who is the common denominator in all problematic situations in the area: Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Cyprus, the southeastern Mediterranean. The common denominator is Turkey,” Dendias said — referring to regional hot spots in which Ankara has a military presence or active diplomatic involvement. “Turkey is undermining peace and stability in the region.”
France, which in the summer conducted joint military drills with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean and is planning to sell warplanes to Athens, expressed “concern” at the new Turkish deployment.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes Von Der Muhll said the EU has “clearly called on Turkey to refrain from unilateral actions that go against the European Union’s interests and violate international law and the sovereign rights of EU member states.”
“We expect Turkey to honor its commitments, refrain from new provocations and provide concrete guarantees of its desire to talk in good faith,” she added.
Ankara and Athens had earlier this month agreed, under NATO auspices, to set up a system to avoid potential military conflicts and accidents, including a hotline. The two countries had also agreed to resume so-called exploratory talks aimed at building confidence and resolving disputes, last held in 2016.
On Sunday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry accused Greece of “insincerity” for what it said were Athens’ continued actions to raise tension while declaring itself to be ready for a dialogue. A ministry statement accused Greece of declaring military exercises in the Aegean Sea to coincide with Turkey’s Oct. 29 national day celebrations. Turkey retaliated by declaring exercises on Oct. 28 — a Greek national holiday.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, contributed to this report.