Tension has escalated dangerously in the Aegean as Turkish gunboats Tuesday surrounded the Imia islets after an incident in the vicinity on Monday midnight when a Greek coast guard boat was rammed by a Turkish patrol boat. The two countries came to the brink of war over the islets in 1996.
Athens lodged a complaint with Ankara over the incident but in a statement later Tuesday the Turkish Foreign Ministry fueled tension further, saying that the islets, known as Kardak in Turkey, “belong to our country,” adding that it had informed the Greek Foreign Ministry that the Greek armed forces have a heightened presence in the area.
According to reliable sources, the Turkish vessel rammed the Greek boat intentionally after receiving clear instructions. Exercises in the region by the armed forces of both countries have led to a relatively large military buildup throughout the Aegean.
Meanwhile, in a bid to defuse tension, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras talked Tuesday with his Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim at Ankara’s request.
According to Maximos Mansion, Yildirim denied the incident at Imia was intentional, while Tsipras reportedly told his Turkish counterpart in no uncertain terms that Turkey’s actions were a violation of international law that undermines Greek-Turkish relations and Ankara’s ties with the EU.
For its part, the US State Department urged both sides to “take steps that will de-escalate the current situation.”
Turkey’s muscle-flexing in the region came as its naval blockade off the coast of Cyprus – obstructing a drillship contracted by Italian Eni energy giant from approaching Block 3 of the island’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – entered its fifth day Tuesday.
In an incendiary statement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned both Athens and Nicosia not to “overstep the mark.”
“They are standing up to us until they see our army, ships and planes,” he said.
Ankara claims that parts of the island’s EEZ belong to Turkey’s continental shelf and accuses Nicosia of acting unilaterally in its hydrocarbon exploration and ignoring the rights of the Turkish Cypriots.
“Our warships and security units are following all developments in the region with the instruction to do whatever is necessary,” he said.
Meanwhile, as two Italian navy ships make their way to Cyprus, Eni hinted that it may not continuing drilling. Eni’s chief executive Claudio Descalzi told Italian media Tuesday that “we cannot wait forever. There is a difference between Cyprus, Turkey and the EU and it must be resolved.”
For his part, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades expressed dismay at Turkey’s actions and the rhetoric of its leadership but called for calm.
“There is no cause for anyone to be concerned. This is being handled in a manner to avert any possible crisis which could create problems to the economy or to the state,” he said.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani called on Ankara to “refrain from engaging in dangerous provocations in Cyprus’s territorial waters.”