Turkey will suspend research for oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean that abruptly raised military tensions with neighboring Greece, a top Turkish official said Tuesday.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his aides to "put this on hold for some time," presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk.
Last week, Turkey announced plans to dispatch research vessel Oruc Reis and two support ships to carry out operations through Aug. 2 south of the Greek islands of Rhodes, Karpathos, and Kastellorizo. The islands are close to Turkey's coastline.
The declaration on Navtex, the international maritime safety system, angered Greece and prompted criticism by the United States, France, and other European countries.
"Greece gave an extreme reaction after our Navtex as if we will go occupy Meis Island (Kastellorizo)," Kalin said on CNN Turk. He said the planned area of exploration stood about 180 kilometers away from the small island.
"Nevertheless, our president said 'since these negotiations are continuing, let's see what happens and put this on hold for some time," Kalin was quoted as saying.
NATO allies Greece and Turkey are at odds over drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has accused Greece of trying to exclude it from the benefits of potential oil and gas finds in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, arguing that sea boundaries for commercial exploitation should be divided between the Greek and Turkish mainlands and not include the Greek islands on an equal basis. Athens counters that Turkey's position is a violation of international law.
"Everyone should continue working on their own continental shelves and conduct joint work in contested areas," Kalin said. He also said that bilateral issues with Greece should be solved through dialogue rather than through threats on Turkey's bid for European Union membership.
Kalin said: "Within the framework of our president's orders, we are ready to speak about all bilateral issues with Greece without preconditions: the Aegean, continental shelves, islands, air space, exploration and the Eastern Mediterranean."
In Athens, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas welcomed Turkey's decision. He described the latest research mission as "illegal" but added that he hoped the two countries could have substantive talks.
"This is a positive development," Petsas told private Skai television. "We want to have open channels of communication with Turkey and to discuss the issue that has been plaguing the two sides for many decades now: The demarcation of maritime zones. This is the issue, which of course needs the proper framework to move forward."
The two historic regional rivals have come close to war three times since the early 1970s, including over offshore exploitation rights, ownership of an uninhabited Aegean Sea islet. The most serious confrontation was in 1974, when Turkey invaded the Eastern Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, following an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece.
Germany has led a diplomatic effort between the two sides, and earlier this month hosted a meeting that included Kalin and the head of the Greek prime minister's diplomatic office. The meeting, held in Berlin, was revealed several days later by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.