Athens on alert over growing tensions in Aegean Sea


Ties between Ankara and Athens remained strained over the weekend, with Greece’s armed forces under instructions to remain alert but calm, following an escalating war of words over sovereignty in the Aegean and an unprecedented spike in Turkish provocations.

According to sources, the Greek military is particularly concerned about a possible surprise move by the Turkish Navy in the Aegean – either another attempt by a Turkish vessel to approach the Imia islets or a claim by Ankara to search and rescue rights in the area – that would ratchet up tensions further.

A week of challenges by Ankara, prompted by a Greek court decision on January 26 to reject a request for the extradition of eight Turkish military officers linked to last year’s failed coup, culminated in a terse verbal exchange.

Late on Friday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the “tone” and “absurd remarks” of Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, saying that they were “deplorable.”

“We condemn his baseless, inappropriate as well as unethical expressions against our country and our President and return them to the owner,” the Turkish ministry said in a written statement issued late on Friday.

“It is so unfortunate that this person, with such lack of consideration, fairness and utter disregard for the most basic rules of courtesy at the international level, and being ignorant of the principal bilateral instruments regarding irregular migration, occupies the office of the Minister of National Defense of Greece at these difficult times for the whole world as well as our region,” the statement added and called on Greek authorities to “act with responsibility.”

The statement followed Kammenos’s comments during an interview with ANT1 TV during which he accused Ankara of “cowboy tactics” in the Aegean and defended his right to fly over the Imia islets, the sovereignty of which Turkish authorities contest. That overflight prompted a barrage of violations of Greek air space by Turkish jets – a record of 138.

Overall, Athens has opted for a low-key response to a series of statements by Turkish government officials broaching territorial claims in the Aegean.

Speaking from an EU leaders’ summit in Malta at the end of last week, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stressed that there are “no gray zones in the Aegean,” an apparent response to claims by his Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim, according to which 130 rocky islets in the Aegean have “no identity.”

Diplomats fear that a power vacuum in Washington could mean that there will be a delay in any reaction if tensions escalate further. New US President Donald Trump has yet to fill key vacancies in the State Department and Defense Secretary’s office.