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All eyes on East Med energy row

Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis

A FLURRY of diplomatic activity unfolded Thursday ahead of a conference call of EU foreign ministers to discuss rising tensions in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean over maritime disputes between Cyprus and Greece, and Turkey.

Amid this backdrop, a Turkish research vessel was said to be wading in out of Greek territorial waters.

During the day Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan spoke on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and also with Charles Michel, President of the European Council.

According to reports, Erdogan told the German leader he is in favour of solving the problems in the eastern Mediterranean on the basis of justice and dialogue.

Earlier, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey does not prey on the sovereign rights of other nations, but at the same time it won’t stand for its own rights being trampled on.

“The path to a solution in the eastern Mediterranean goes through dialogue and negotiations,” the Turkish leader was quoted as saying.

“If we act in good faith and rationally, a win-win formula can be found that safeguards the rights of all sides.”

Erdogan accused Greece of “malintent” and unreasonable demands in the Aegean.

He said Athens’ insistence on maritime jurisdiction in the area around the small island of Kastellorizo defied common sense, given that the island lies only two kilometres off the Turkish coast but 580 kilometres from mainland Greece.

And he reiterated that Turkey’s Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel would continue it work until August 23 as scheduled.

The vessel itself briefly entered Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), after which it headed into waters between the Cyprus EEZ and Greece’s continental shelf.

It later re-entered the Greek continental shelf, inside the area Turkey designated for seismic research.

It’s being shadowed by auxiliary and Turkish warships. The vessel set out to sea this week, days after Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt, a move that angered Ankara.

Turkey has said it plans to issue gas exploration and drilling licences in the region, somewhere between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus, this month.

Nato allies Greece and Turkey disagree about their overlapping claims on hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, based on conflicting views of how far their continental shelves extend in waters dotted with islands.

Also on Thursday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his counterparts from Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria.

The phone conversations took place ahead of Friday’s conference call of EU foreign ministers , convened to discuss the situation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece was likewise working the diplomatic channels, with its top diplomat Nicos Dendias visiting Israel where he met Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

Dendias was due to be received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day.

On Friday, the Greek foreign minister will be meeting in Vienna with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Over in Cyprus, Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides spoke on the phone with his Israeli counterpart Ashkenazi. Christodoulides later tweeted:

“True friend Gabi Ashkenazi reached out today to reiterate Israel’s support & solidarity to Cyprus in the face of escalating aggression in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”

Earlier in the day, the Greek and French navies held a joint exercise in a sea region of the eastern Mediterranean, including in the area Turkey recently reserved for seismic research.

Taking part were four Greek frigates as well as a French task force fleet comprising the Tonnere and the frigate Lafayette.

The exercise included manoeuvres, tactical image exchange, communications as well as aircraft cooperation, Greece’s General Staff said.

The wargames took place a day after French President Emmanuel Macron announced Paris will step up its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and called on Turkey to halt oil and gas exploration in disputed waters that has heightened tensions with Greece.

Macron last month called for EU sanctions against Turkey for what he described as “violations” of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty over their territorial waters. Relations between Paris and Ankara have also frayed over the conflict in Libya.

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