NEWS

Imia incident ends by mutual agreement

A 26-hour standoff between the Greek and Turkish coast guard near two eastern Aegean rocks over which the two countries nearly fought nine years ago came to an end yesterday morning when all forces pulled out of the area. The incident was particularly embarrassing for Greece, as it coincided with a visit to Ankara by Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis, who on Tuesday announced a batch of new confidence-building measures to defuse military tension in the Aegean. But at the same time, Greek and Turkish coast guard patrol boats were shadowing each other just off the Imia islets, the site of a major military standoff in January 1996 that ended with a US-brokered mutual withdrawal after Turkish commandos occupied one of the rocks. Also, the two countries’ air force pilots jousted over the Aegean, with Turkish fighters entering a restricted area off Andros where the Greek navy was conducting an exercise with live fire. Molyviatis said yesterday’s Imia pullout followed negotiations with Turkish officials. «During this visit, we were able to make use of all options at our disposal to address incidents in the Aegean, so as to prevent them from developing into a crisis,» he said. A ministry source told Kathimerini that Greek officials were deeply angered by the Turkish military action, but ruled out directly demanding an immediate cessation of such activity and threatening to cut short the visit. «Had we done that, matters would have deteriorated drastically, and we would have found ourselves sitting at the negotiating table in a much less advantageous position 10 or 15 days later,» the source said. It added that the Turkish government «wishes, honestly, truly and in good faith, to continue with efforts to normalize bilateral relations.» The Turkish patrol boat withdrew from the Imia area at 11.08 a.m., shortly before Molyviatis concluded his talks with Turkish officials – including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who extended an official invitation for Greek PM Costas Karamanlis to visit Turkey. In Athens, government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros described the Imia incident as «an act aiming to question our country’s sovereign rights in the area.» «Greece has taken all necessary measures and all necessary action to ensure that our national interests and our sovereignty in the Aegean are fully protected, and for the crisis to be defused,» he said, without elaborating. Opposition leader George Papandreou said Molyviatis should have reacted «more visibly.» Synaspismos Left Coalition voiced concern over the Aegean incidents, and called on the government to convoke an emergency meeting of party leaders to discuss foreign policy. «On the one hand, there is the romance between Molyviatis and Gul,» party chairman Alekos Alavanos said, «and provocative military activity by Turkey at Imia and in the Andros firing range on the other. It is like watching a love film whose soundtrack consists of martial music.»