Raising Tensions With Greece, Turkey to Issue New Gas Exploration Licences

Tempers continue to heat up in the eastern Mediterranean, driving Athens to call for an emergency EU meeting over the issue ■ Officials in Brussels call latest developments 'extremely worrying'

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to members of the press after a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on August 10, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to members of the press after a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on August 10, 2020.Credit: AFP

Turkey will issue gas exploration and drilling licences in the eastern Mediterranean, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, further raising tensions with Greece which said it would seek an emergency EU meeting to address the issue.

The two NATO allies vehemently disagree about their overlapping claims for hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, based on conflicting views of how far their continental shelves extend in waters dotted with islands.

On Monday, Turkey sent an exploration vessel into a disputed area, ending a brief period of calm brokered by Germany. Ankara said a maritime deal Greece signed with Egypt last week showed it could not trust Athens, and vowed to continue surveying waters that are also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis, anchored off the coast of Antalya on the Mediterranean, Turkey, July 24, 2020.Credit: Ibrahim Laleli,AP

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey's Oruc Reis exploration vessel would continue its work, which Greece has decried as illegal, and Ankara would issue new seismic exploration and drilling licenses by the end of August.

"Our determination is unfaltering here," he told reporters in Ankara. "We will not compromise in any way from this."

Backing up Cavusoglu's unyielding tone, Turkey's communications director Fahrettin Altun tweeted on Tuesday video footage of Turkish fighter jets, warships and exploration vessels deployed at sea.

"Every drop of our blue homeland is sacred," Altun tweeted, referring to a doctrine championed by recent Turkish naval commanders calling for Ankara to adopt a more muscular approach in its coastal waters.

Turkey says it has the longest coastline in the eastern Mediterranean but is penned in to a narrow strip of coastal water by the presence of numerous small Greek islands close to its shore. Greece and other regional states cite a United Nations accord to support their maritime demarcations.

"Greece will defend its sovereignty and its rights. We are calling on Turkey to immediately leave the Greek continental shelf," Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said in statements aired on state ERT TV on Tuesday.

Athens seeks emergency EU meeting

Greece said it would request an emergency meeting of the European Union foreign affairs council, the prime minister's office said on Tuesday.

The European Union, which has imposed an entry ban and asset freeze on two Turkish energy executives, called for dialogue. "The latest developments are extremely worrying," European Commission foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said.

Turkey's presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that two months of talks between Greece and Turkey had led to "an understanding" between them which was then scuppered by Thursday's announcement of the Greek-Egyptian deal.

An offshore drilling rig is seen in the waters off Cyprus' coastal city of Limassol, July 5, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias

"The moment the accord with Egypt was announced, we received very clear orders from our president. 'Stop the talks'," Kalin told broadcaster CNN Turk at the weekend.

The United States, saying it took no position on maritime boundary issues of other states, expressed deep concern at Turkey's exploration work and called for a return to talks.

"We strongly support dialogue between Greece and Turkey and encourage the parties to resume discussing these issues," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

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