Turkey cautions Greece against EastMed missteps, says ready for ‘precondition free’ talks

(Releads with Çavuşoğlu,Maas press conference)

Turkey on Tuesday warned Greece against missteps in the Eastern Mediterranean, saying that Turkey is ready to do “whatever is necessary’’ in the region, while urging the EU to act as an “honest and objective” mediator in the dispute.

Greece must abandon its “maximalist approach” and pre-conditions as a prerequisite for dialogue to begin over the growing row over eastern Mediterranean natural gas, T24 news site quoted Turkish Foreign Minister as saying on Tuesday at a press conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas in Ankara.

“We are open to talks without pre-conditions,” the Turkish foreign minister said. “But, when one side starts imposing pre-conditions, then there are many things we will put forth, too. Before anything, Greece needs to abandon its maximalist approach.”

Çavuşoğlu warned Athens against throwing itself at risk by falling for bait given by “certain countries.’’

Greece should know that “we will do whatever is necessary, without hesitation,’’ he added.

Maas, in turn, said the escalation of tension in the region helps neither Turkey, nor the EU or Greece.

Earlier on Tuesday, during a visit to Athens, Maas said the ongoing row between Greece and Turkey over hydrocarbon resources amounted to "playing with fire."

Maas made the statement following a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, before arriving in Ankara as part of an effort to appeal to both sides for de-escalation in the region. Maas likene the crisis between Ankara and Athens to "getting closer to the cliff" and added that when you get close to the cliff, "you might fall over the cliff. We want to prevent this development."

“Every little spark can lead to catastrophe,” German broadcaster Deutsch Welle quoted Maas as saying.

The latest bout of tensions between the NATO allies started earlier this month, when Turkey dispatched research vessel Oruç Reis to an area of sea claimed by both sides.

Greece and the European Union said Turkey's drilling for oil and natural gas in the region was illegal, while Turkey said the explorations were within its exclusive economic zone. 

“Germany and the whole European Union stand by Greece in firm solidarity,” Maas said in Athens.

The escalating tension has also raised concerns of conflict between the two rivals, which have come to the brink of war three times since the mid-1970s, including once over prospecting rights in the Aegean Sea.

Military jets of the two air forces have also conducted mock dogfights over islands in the Aegean.

“Further escalation can only harm all sides, but above all those directly involved on site,” the German foreign minister said.

“Instead of new provocations,’’ Maas said, “we need to take steps towards detente and enter into direct talks.”

Meanwhile, Turkey and Greece are conducting rival naval exercises off the Greek island of Crete in the latest escalation of a tense standoff over disputed territory and hydrocarbon reserves in the region.

Athens and Ankara issued tit-for-tat advisories this week informing ships of naval exercises in the maritime region. The decision followed Turkey’s extension of a navigational telex (Navtex) for Oruç Reis to search for hydrocarbons in a region between Crete and Cyprus.

The militaries of NATO members Greece and Turkey are squaring off in an intensification of a decades-long dispute over sea rights.

Turkey’s military exercises will be held south of Crete, local media including Diken news website cited Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying on Monday.

Greek newspaper Kathimerini said Greece was slated to begin its naval drills south of Kassos to the south of Kastellorizo, in an area which overlaps the Navtex issued for the Turkish navy-escorted Oruç Reis.

The Greek military published photographic and video footage from a Greek-American naval and air force exercise that took place south of Crete on Monday, according to Kathimerini.

Germany and other European countries, as well as the United States, are attempting to defuse tensions between the two regional rivals. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was due to visit both Athens and Ankara on Tuesday, meeting first with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis before traveling to Turkey. Germany has accepted a mediating role in the standoff.

Also in the next few days, Greece, France, Italy and Cyprus will conduct a major naval exercise in the wider eastern Mediterranean region, according to Kathimerini.

The Jerusalem Post meanwhile reported on Monday evening that four F-16s from the United Arab Emirates landed at Crete’s Souda air base to take part in joint exercises with Greece.

"Turkey will not take even the smallest step back from the activities of either Oruç Reis or our naval elements escorting it," President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan said after a cabinet meeting on Monday.

Greece had "thrown itself into a chaos from which it cannot find a way out", Erdoğan said.

Akar said the Greek exercises were "an activity incompatible with good neighbourly relations and maritime rules” which endanger “the safety of navigation and increase the tension”.

In Athens, Greek lawmaker Maximos Harakopoulos told parliament that Turkey had “pushed us to the brink of military confrontation”, the Greek City Times reported. He said Turkey had adopted the law of power and conquest instead of international law.

Turkey is pursuing what it calls its “Blue Homeland” naval expansion doctrine, which lays claim to wide-ranging territorial waters in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas – resulting in a series of territorial disputes with Greece. Ankara signed a maritime agreement with the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in November which has stoked tensions further.

Greece is preparing to to extend a cement and barbed-wire fence along its border with Turkey to prevent refugees from entering the country, the Middle East Monitor reported on Monday. The refugee situation is another of a range of issues straining Greek-Turkish relations.

The 63-million-euro project will be completed within eight months, the news website cited Athens government spokesman Stelios Petsas as saying at a briefing with reporters.

In February, Turkey announced that it would stop policing the Greek border, prompting an influx of thousands of refugees to its northeastern frontier with Greece. Violent clashes erupted soon after between Greek police and refugees. Greek officials in March said they had stopped nearly 10,000 migrants crossing the land border with Turkey.