Standoff peaks with incident in East Med

Standoff peaks with incident in East Med

Concerns that the standoff between Greek and Turkish fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean could lead to an accident were confirmed on Thursday, albeit not in a dramatic way, when two frigates collided.

More specifically, according to reports, there was a collision between the Limnos frigate and the Turkish vessel Kemal Reis, apparently due to a mistake by the latter’s skipper. 

The Turkish frigate was damaged, in contrast to the Greek one, which participated in Thursday's Greek-French joint exercise in the region.

The incident will be broached by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias at Friday’s extraordinary EU Foreign Affairs Council called by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell amid the sharp increase in tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

No decision is expected on sanctions against Turkey as the Council does not have such authority. This, however, cannot be ruled out on August 27-28, when an informal summit of foreign ministers will take place.

Dendias said on Thursday that he will inform his European counterparts about “real events” and “operational incidents” of recent days. He will reportedly also present relevant photographic material and videos from the incident.

For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a different narrative regarding the incident, saying that Turkey’s Oruc Reis seismic vessel which has been sailing in and out of Greece’s continental shelf had been attacked and that Turkey responded. 

“We said do not attack Oruc Reis otherwise you will pay a heavy price. And they got the first answer,” he claimed.

However, according to Greek diplomatic sources, Erdogan’s claims about an alleged Greek attack on the Oruc Reis were likely an attempt by the Turkish leader to protect himself from criticism at home because the Turkish vessel reportedly sustained damage in the collision.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts were in full swing to de-escalate tensions sparked by Turkey’s presence in the area off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel having contacts with both Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdogan. 

The contacts made by Mitsotakis are part of the wider context of diplomatic efforts in order to make clear that Greece wants open channels of communication with Turkey only on the basis of international law. This was, after all, Mitsotakis’ central message during his televised speech on Wednesday. 

Also on Wednesday, Mitsotakis contacted both French President Emmanuel Macron and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Macron said later that France would boost its military presence in the East Med and called on Turkey to halt its “unilateral” exploration activities and enter dialogue with Greece. On Thursday, two French fighter jets and a naval frigate conducted joint military exercises with Greece off the island of Crete.

At the same time, Dendias visited Israel on Tjuand held talks with Benjamin Netanyahu and will be in Vienna today where he is scheduled to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The immediate response to Dendias’ request for a meeting with Pompeo shows, government sources said, “the well-established perception of partners and allies” regarding Turkey’s behavior.

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