Why France is sailing into a Greece-Turkey territorial dispute

France beefed up its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where tensions are growing between France's close ally, Greece, and Turkey. Both countries claim oil and gas rights in the area.

Greek National Defence/AP
A French helicopter carrier is flanked by Greek and French military vessels during a maritime exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aug. 13, 2020. Greece and Turkey both sent warships on Aug. 12 to shadow a Turkish research vessel sailing disputed waters.

Greece's prime minister warmly thanked France Thursday for boosting its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek and Turkish warships are closely shadowing each other over a Turkish energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own.

Meanwhile, Turkey accused Greece and the island nation of Cyprus of encroaching on its rights in the Mediterranean and vowed to defend its interests in the region but also called for dialogue to resolve the dispute.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that French President Emmanuel Macron was "a true friend of Greece and also a fervent protector of European values and international law."

The mounting territorial tension follows Turkey's move to send a seismic research vessel, escorted by warships, into waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus to prospect for potential offshore gas and oil reserves, following similar discoveries in other parts of the region.

Greece claims part of the area is over its own continental shelf and has demanded that the Turkish ships withdraw. Turkey counters that it's entitled to conduct research in the area. Greece placed its military on alert, and sent warships to the area off Turkey's southern coast.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated a call for dialogue and said he would hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel later Thursday to discuss the standoff.

"The path for a solution in the eastern Mediterranean is dialogue and negotiation," Mr. Erdogan said during an address to his ruling party's officials. "A formula based on a win-win solution that protects the rights of all can be found if we act with common sense and reason."

"Greece's attitude in the Aegean and the Mediterranean is malicious," Mr. Erdogan said, adding that the Greek island on which Athens bases its continental shelf claim is located just 1.25 miles from the Turkish coast and 369 miles from the Greek mainland.

Mr. Erdogan said: "We don't have designs on anyone's rights, but we won't let any country take away our rights."

The Turkish leader also accused France of "provoking" Greece and Cyprus into taking "wrongful steps."

The Greek Defense Ministry said the French frigate Lafayette and the helicopter carrier Tonnerre held joint exercises with four Greek frigates Thursday in the eastern Mediterranean, including in areas Turkey is exploring. Two French Rafale fighter jets are making a stop Thursday at Souda, on Crete, after being previously deployed in Cyprus for an exercise.

The French Defense Ministry said France's military presence "is aiming at reinforcing France's autonomous assessment of the situation and affirms the country's attachment to free movement, maritime safety, and respect for international law in the Mediterranean Sea."

Mr. Macron announced following a phone call with Mr. Mitsotakis late Wednesday that he decided to "temporarily reinforce the French military presence in the eastern Mediterranean in the coming days, in cooperation with European partners including Greece."

Greece's NATO and European Union ally France is the EU's biggest military power. Complicating matters, Turkey – Greece's historic regional rival – is also a NATO member but has poor relations with France.

In a televised statement Wednesday, Mr. Mitsotakis warned of the "risk of an accident" in the 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 was 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," Mr. Mitsotakis said. "No provocation will ... go unanswered."

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

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

Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christoulides tweeted Thursday that his Israeli counterpart and "true friend" Gabi Ashkenazi communicated with him to "reiterate Israel's support and solidarity in the face of escalating aggression in Cyprus' maritime zones."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus contributed to this report.

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