Warship ‘mini-collision’ highlights risk of Greek-Turkish confrontation

The Greek frigate manoeuvred to avoid a head-on collision and in the process its bow touched the rear of the Turkish frigate.
Friday 14/08/2020
French Tonnerre helicopter carrier, centre, escorted by Greek and French military vessels during a maritime exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, August 13. (AP)
French Tonnerre helicopter carrier, centre, escorted by Greek and French military vessels during a maritime exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, August 13. (AP)

ATHENS--A Greek and a Turkish warship were involved in a mini-collision on Wednesday during a standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean, a Greek defence source said, describing it as an “accident.”

Tensions have risen this week after Turkey sent a survey vessel to the region, escorted by warships, to map out sea territory for possible oil and gas drilling – an area where Turkey and Greece both claim jurisdiction.

The Turkish Oruc Reis survey ship has been moving between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete, shadowed by a number of Greek frigates. On Wednesday, one of them, the Limnos, was approaching the survey vessel when it came into the path of one of its Turkish naval escorts, the Kemal Reis.

The Greek frigate maneuvered to avoid a head-on collision and in the process its bow touched the rear of the Turkish frigate, the defence source said.

“It was an accident,” the source said, adding the Limnos was not damaged. It subsequently took part in a joint military exercise with France off Crete on Thursday morning.

There was no immediate comment on the incident from the Turkish defence ministry.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that any attack on a Turkish ship exploring for oil and gas in disputed Mediterranean waters would incur a “high price” and suggested Turkey had already acted on that warning.

“We said that if you attack our Oruc Reis you will pay a high price, and they got their first answer today,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara, without giving details.

The French military conducted training exercises with Greek forces off the southern island of Crete on Thursday, as tensions mounted.

France has also called on Turkey to halt oil and gas exploration in disputed waters.

On Thursday, the French armed forces ministry said it was sending two Rafale fighter jets and the naval frigate “Lafayette” to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Tensions have simmered between NATO allies Greece and Turkey in recent days over overlapping claims to hydrocarbon resources in Mediterranean waters. Ankara been flexing muscle in the East Mediterranean over oil and gas resources despite the strong opposition of its neighbours and the objections of France and Egypt.

The Turkish seismic vessel, the Oruc Reis, was dispatched by Ankara days after Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt designating an exclusive economic zone between the two nations. The Egyptian-Greek agreement came after a border demarcation deal in favour of Turkey was signed last November by Ankara with Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA).

In a televised statement Wednesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki warned of the “risk of an accident” in the contained area where the Greek and Turkish warships are gathered.

“In such a case, responsibility lies upon the one who gives rise to these circumstances,” he said. He added that Greece is not averse to “even the toughest dialogue,” but that “dialogue becomes irrelevant in a climate of tension and provocation.”

“We will never be the ones to escalate the situation. Yet, self-restraint is only one aspect of our power,” Mitsotaki said. “No provocation will … go unanswered.”

On Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to Israel for talks on the matter. Dendias is due to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday.

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held calls with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as well as the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Hungary and Lithuania ahead of an emergency meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to discuss the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On Wednesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said his country wants to resolve the dispute with Greece through dialogue but added that Ankara would press on with its plans in the region.

“We want to believe that common sense will prevail. Both on the field and at the table, we side with international law, good neighbourliness and dialogue,” Akar said.

Akar reiterated, however, the Turkish military’s doctrine that seeks control of neighbouring seas. “It should be known that our seas are our blue homeland. Every drop is valuable,” he said.