NEWS

Imia standoff risked getting out of hand

Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis said yesterday that Tuesday’s standoff between the Greek and Turkish coast guards in the eastern Aegean could have escalated into a «most serious crisis» had he broken off an official visit to Turkey in protest. Following a meeting with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, Molyviatis, who held talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Tuesday and Wednesday, defended his decision to stay in Ankara and negotiate a pullout of all coast guard vessels from around the barren Imia islets, over which Greece and Turkey came very close to war in January 1996. «If I had left Ankara, I think a very rapid deterioration would have followed in Greek-Turkish relations, and today we would have a most serious crisis on our hands,» he said. «However, the way we handled matters in Ankara, an incident which could have developed into a crisis was defused, and today calm reigns in Greek-Turkish relations.» In addition to the Imia incident, which involved one vessel from each country and lasted some 26 hours, Turkey angered Athens after a number of Turkish military aircraft violated Greek air space – as Molyviatis and his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, were announcing new confidence-boosting measures aimed to reduce military tension in the Aegean. This behavior was repeated yesterday, when a total of 32 Turkish fighter and photo-reconnaissance jets violated Greek air space over the Aegean in 21 instances, and had to be chased off by Greek jets. Furthermore, Turkish military aircraft flew above the Greek Kalogiroi islets in the central Aegean – at altitudes of 500, 1,000 and 14,000 feet – and came very close to a firing range off Andros where the Greek navy was conducting a live-fire exercise. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos remarked that the Imia incident did not «contribute to improving bilateral relations.» He added, however, that «to a certain degree, Turkey shows understanding for Greece’s views on the peaceful development of bilateral relations.» On the question of the United Nations-drafted proposal for a new name under which the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia could be internationally recognized, Molyviatis expressed displeasure at the fact that delicate aspects of the document had been leaked to the Greek press.