The Hellenic Coast Guard staged its biggest migrant rescue operation in recent months late Tuesday, rescuing 96 people off the island of Halki in the southern Aegean, officials said on Wednesday, but the operation was complicated by the intervention of Turkish vessels.
Two Turkish Coast Guard vessels entered international waters off the coast of Halki, where the smuggling boat had foundered on Tuesday evening, several hours after the rescue operation began, and the 96 migrants had been rescued, according to Greek officials.
(The rescue operation continued until late on Wednesday night as survivors’ accounts suggested two more people might be missing, a man and his child.)
Conducting dangerous maneuvers on Tuesday night, the Turkish vessels obliged the captain of a Maltese-flagged cargo ship that had been taking part in the rescue operation to hand over another 19 migrants it had rescued from the sea.
According to Greek officials, the Turkish vessels also sought to obstruct the efforts of a Hellenic Air Force rescue helicopter to collect an injured man from the deck of the Hong Kong-flagged Ocean Ang, another cargo ship that had been taking part in the rescue operation, by intercepting the radio frequency used by the helicopter and giving different orders (in Greek with a Turkish accent).
The Hellenic Coast Guard’s control center communicated with the Turkish Coast Guard several times on Tuesday evening. In the first exchange, it asked the Turks to withdraw and they asked for time to establish exactly what had occurred. In the third and final exchange, the Turkish Coast Guard claimed that the incident had occurred in an area where Turkey has a right to operate, not Greece.
The claim came as tensions between Greece and Turkey over sovereignty and energy rights in the Eastern Mediterranean have spiked again amid a scramble by European Union leaders to mediate a return to the negotiating table.