Turkey Accuses France of Stirring Tensions as Standoff With Greece Continues

France to join Italy, Greece and Cyprus in three-day air and sea military exercises in Mediterranean ■ Turkey responds by announcing it will hold military drills off its southern coast opposite Cyprus

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Greek warships take part in a military exercise in Eastern Mediterranean sea, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.
Greek warships take part in a military exercise in Eastern Mediterranean sea, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.Credit: Greek Defense Ministry / AP

Turkey on Thursday accused France of stoking tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where NATO allies Turkey and Greece are locked in a stiff standoff over competing claims over offshore energy exploration rights. 

They are at odds over the rights to potential hydrocarbon resources, based on conflicting claims over the extent of their continental shelves.

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In Ankara, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar slammed France, which was set to join Italy, Greece and Cyprus in three-day air and sea military exercises off the the east Mediterranean island and said Turkey would not be deterred by the show of force.

“To believe that it would be possible to thwart the Turkish Armed Forces operations with exercises and similar activities is nothing more than a pipe dream,” Akar said in an interview with state-run Anadolu Agency.

The accusation came as European Union foreign ministers were set to meet in Berlin as they try to persuade EU-member Greece and its neighbor Turkey to pull back from the brink of a conflict.

The ministers were expected to debate a range of sanctions and other policy options that might convince Turkey to temper its insistence on drilling for energy reserves in disputed parts of the eastern Mediterranean.

Germany has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Ankara to defuse the tensions while U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday had separate telephone calls with the leaders of Greece and Turkey.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said he was in “constant contact” with Greece and Turkey.

“My message is that the situation must be resolved in a spirit of allied solidarity and in line with international law,” Stoltenberg said as he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. “Dialogue and de-escalation are in everybody’s interest."

Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy meanwhile accused France of deploying warplanes on the ethnically-divided island of Cyprus on the “pretext” of carrying out military exercises.

The deployment went against treaties reached in 1960, he said. Cyprus was divided in 1974 following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup. Turkey recognises the Turkish-populated north of Cyprus as a separate state, which is not recognised by other countries.

“France, which is not a guarantor of the island of Cyprus, is with this attitude dangerously encouraging the Greek Cypriot and Greek duo, who are responsible for the current tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, to escalate the tension further,” Aksoy said in a statement.

France and Greece will deploy both warplanes and navy ships as part of the drills, while Cyprus will activate its air defense system to test its capabilities, Cyprus' Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.

Turkey, meanwhile, issued a notice, known as Navtex, declaring that it would hold live-fire military exercises Sept. 1-2 off its southern Mediterranean coast, opposite Cyprus.

The Turkish vessel Oruc Reis has for weeks been carrying out seismic research, escorted by Turkish warships. Athens, which says the ship is operating over Greece’s continental shelf in an area where it has exclusive rights on potential undersea gas and oil deposits, sent warships to observe and track the Turkish flotilla.

Turkey disputes Greece’s claims, insisting that small Greek islands near the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries. Ankara accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of the eastern Mediterranean’s resources.

Turkey and Greece have both vowed to defend their competing claims in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Wednesday that his country “will never compromise on what belongs to us. We are determined to do whatever is necessary in political, economic and military terms.”

Parliament in Greece is expected to ratify an accord on Thursday evening defining its sea boundaries with Egypt, having ratified a similar deal with Italy. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece is planning to exercise its legal right to extend its territorial waters along its western coastline, which faces Italy, from six to 12 nautical miles. 

The planned extension would not affect the territory at the center of the Greek-Turkish dispute. Turkey has warned in the past that an extension of Greek waters to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean Sea, facing the Turkish littoral, would be seen as a reason to declare war on Greece.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said that Greece's right to shift its western maritime border stems from the Law of the Sea and it reserves the right to do so in other sea areas, when it decides. "The tension is not created by Greece, which is ready to contribute in a de-escalation," he said.

Akar, the Turkish defense minister, reiterated that Turkey favored dialogue with Greece but was determined to safeguard its rights. “If our Greek counterparts agree, we would be pleased to host them here,” Akar said. “We would not allow our rights to be trampled on,” he also said. “Turkey's strength should not be tested.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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