Greek navy encircles island as tensions rise with Turkey

Greek battleships have encircled Kastellorizo, the island at the centre of a territorial dispute with Turkey, and several uninhabited islets to shield Greek territory against Turkish attempts to survey for hydrocarbons, according to Greek media.

Athens deployed the ships as it issued a navigational code advising of plans to station gunboats between Rhodes and Kastellorizo, a Greek island lying just off Turkey’s coastline. It said it was responding to Turkey’s plans to extend its survey work, Kathimerini newspaper reported.

Turkey redeployed its seismic survey ship Oruç Reis to Greek-claimed territory near Kastellorizo last week. It had suspended a previous mission to lay the ground for bilateral talks backed by the European Union, agreed in late September.

The Oruç Reis was sailing more than 85 kilometres from Kastellorizo in the early hours of Thursday, according to marinetraffic.com, which tracks international shipping. It had approached to within 20 kilometres of the Greek territory earlier this week.

On Wednesday, Turkey extended the Oruç Reis’s mission in the disputed waters between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete until Oct. 27, Agence France Presse reported, citing a navigational telex. The advisory was due to expire on Friday.

Germany has been leading European efforts to de-escalate political and military tensions between the two neighbours and NATO members. Late last month, the European Union stopped short of imposing sanctions on Turkey for what it said were provocations and infringements of Greek territory to give talks between the two governments a chance.

But negotiations between Athens and Ankara have yet to start, despite the two sides agreeing on a framework for military de-escalation at NATO-sponsored meetings in September. 

Greece has been upping the diplomatic ante with its European allies after Turkey re-deployed the Oruç Reis. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, in a letter to European Commission enlargement chief Oliver Varhely this week, said that the EU should consider the full suspension of Turkey’s customs union with the bloc “as a message of disapproval for Turkey's ongoing illegal behaviour”.

Dendias also called on Germany, Italy and Spain to halt exports of military equipment to Turkey, including submarines and frigates.

Turkey says international law gives it the right to explore for hydrocarbons off its coastline, saying the area lies within its continental shelf. It labels Greece’s territorial claims as “maximalist” and irrational.