Greece welcomes French boost as tension rises in east Med

ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s prime minister warmly thanked France Thursday for boosting its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek and Turkish warships are closely shadowing each other over a Turkish energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own.

Meanwhile, Turkey accused Greece and the island nation of Cyprus of encroaching on its rights in the Mediterranean and vowed to defend its interests in the region but also called for dialogue to resolve the dispute.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that French President Emmanuel Macron was “a true friend of Greece and also a fervent protector of European values and international law.”

The mounting territorial tension follows Turkey’s move to send a seismic research vessel, escorted by warships, into waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus to prospect for potential offshore gas and oil reserves, following similar discoveries in other parts of the region.

Greece claims part of the area is over its own continental shelf and has demanded that the Turkish ships withdraw. Turkey counters that it’s entitled to conduct research in the area. Greece placed its military on alert, and sent warships to the area off Turkey’s southern coast.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated a call for dialogue.

“The path for a solution in the eastern Mediterranean is dialogue and negotiation,” Erdogan said during an address to his ruling party’s officials. “A formula based on a win-win solution that protects the rights of all can be found if we act with common sense and reason.”

“Greece’s attitude in the Aegean and the Mediterranean is malicious,” Erdogan said, adding that the Greek island on which Athens bases its continental shelf claim is located just 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) from the Turkish coast and 580 kilometres (369 kilometres) from the Greek mainland.

Erdogan said: “We don’t have designs on anyone’s rights, but we won’t let any country take away our rights.”

The Turkish leader also accused France of “provoking” Greece and Cyprus into taking “wrongful steps.”

Erdogan later held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has previously interceded to ease similar tensions between Turkey and Greece. A statement from Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader voiced support for a resolution based on “equity and dialogue within the framework of international law.”

The Greek Defence Ministry said the French frigate Lafayette and the helicopter carrier Tonnerre held joint exercises with four Greek frigates Thursday in the eastern Mediterranean, including in areas Turkey is exploring. Two French Rafale fighter jets are making a stop Thursday at Souda, on Crete, after being previously deployed in Cyprus for an exercise.

The French Defence Ministry said France’s military presence “is aiming at reinforcing France’s autonomous assessment of the situation and affirms the country’s attachment to free movement, maritime safety and respect for international law in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Macron announced following a phone call with Mitsotakis late Wednesday that he decided to “temporarily reinforce the French military presence in the eastern Mediterranean in the coming days, in co-operation with European partners including Greece.”

Greece’s NATO and European Union ally France is the EU’s biggest military power. Complicating matters, Turkey — Greece’s historic regional rival — is also a NATO member but has poor relations with France.

In a televised statement Wednesday, Mitsotakis warned of the “risk of an accident” in the area where the Greek and Turkish warships are gathered.

“In such a case, responsibility lies upon the one who gives rise to these circumstances,” he said. He added that Greece was not averse to “even the toughest dialogue,” but that “dialogue becomes irrelevant in a climate of tension and provocation.”

“We will never be the ones to escalate the situation. Yet, self-restraint is only one aspect of our power,” Mitsotakis said. “No provocation will … go unanswered.”

On Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias travelled to Israel for talks on the matter, as well as on a project between Israel, Greece and Cyrus to transport Israeli gas from offshore reserves through an undersea pipeline to Italy.

Dendias said that during meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign MInister Gabi Ashkenazi, he thanked them for Israel’s support and “made it clear that Turkey’s illicit behaviour poses a threat to all countries in our region – a threat to security and stability.”

Netanyahu said Greece and Israel enjoy shared interests.

“Obviously, we view gravely any aggression by anyone, including Turkey, in the eastern Mediterranean,” Netanyahu said.

Dendias is also due to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday, as well as Austria’s foreign minister.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held calls with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as well as the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Hungary and Lithuania ahead of an emergency meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to discuss the situation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christoulides tweeted Thursday that Israel’s Ashkenazi communicated with him to “reiterate Israel’s support and solidarity in the face of escalating aggression in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”

___

Fraser reported from Ankara. Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this story.

Nicholas Paphitis And Suzan Fraser, The Associated Press

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