Turkey says Oruç Reis will continue East Med activities after Greece signals readiness for talks

(Updates article with Turkish Energy Ministry statement from first paragraph; Çavuşoğlu’s interview on paragraphs 5-6, 9-12; and CHP statement in seventh and eighth paragraphs)

Turkey’s research ship the Oruç Reis will continue its surveying activities in contested waters after routine maintenance and supply operations, the Energy Ministry said on Monday, after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Athens was ready to start a new round of talks with Ankara.

Speaking at a news conference in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki on Sunday, Mitsotakis called the survey ship’s return to Turkey was a “positive first step” towards de-escalation, Bloomberg reported.

“The point is to have continuity,” he said, adding that Greece is always ready to sit at the table of talks to discuss the demarcation of maritime zones.

However, the Turkish Energy Ministry said in a written statement that the Oruç Reis only returned home for routine monthly maintenance and resupplying, and the ship will soon return to its activities. Another research ship, the Barbaros, and the Yavuz drilling ship are continuing its activities in the eastern Mediterranean “based on international law”, the ministry said.

In a televised interview with NTV, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the reason why Turkey did not reissue a navigational telex, or Navtex, on the Oruç Reis’ continued activities was because there was “no point” while the ship is in maintenance.

He said the vessels return to Turkey was perceived as a retreat by some, including the Turkish political opposition, but it is “not true”.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said over the weekend that the anchoring of the Oruç Reis off the coast of Antalya would be considered a “compromise”.

"We call on the government not to make concessions in our justifiable cases," T24 on Sunday cited Kılıçdaroğlu as saying at an extraordinary meeting of the CHP’s senior officials.

Çavuşoğlu said the CHP's labelling the removal of Oruç Reis as a "compromise" without asking the government the reason of its removal from the eastern Mediterranean is linked to domestic politics.

Separately, he said Turkey did not expect to face European Union sanctions over the dispute with Greece, to take further steps next week but such measures could not be ruled out.

“It could be against our ship, our company, individuals. They took such decisions in the past. Have we given up on our determination? No, our determination increased,” he said.

EU leaders could make a decision at a summit on Sept. 24-25.

The latest developments come during an ongoing territorial spat between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus over offshore energy resources. Greece and Cyprus say that islands have their own continental shelves granting them extensive exploration rights, a claim Turkey contests. Ankara, which does not recognise Cyprus as a state, claims half of the country’s exclusive economic zone on behalf of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and has repeatedly carried out warship-escorted offshore drilling in its environs.

Tensions further escalated after Turkey sent the Oruç Reis, also escorted by warships, to explore for hydrocarbons in an area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete last month. Athens responded to the move by sending naval and air units to shadow the Oruç Reis and conducting military exercises with Cyprus, France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates in the area – creating a standoff at risk of escalating into a direct confrontation.