Greece on Sunday condemned vandalism to a mural of the Greek flag on Kastellorizo island blamed on Turkish nationals, a day before the arrival in the country of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The tiny Greek island, just 2km (1.2 miles) off the Turkish coast, lies in disputed waters that have been a source of escalating tensions between Turkey and Greece.
At the centre of the latest crisis is Turkey’s deployment last month of a seismic research vessel accompanied by warships in the eastern Mediterranean, near Kastellorizo, despite repeated protests from Athens and the European Union.
Authorities on the island on Saturday found red paint smeared over a large mural of the Greek flag, painted on a hill near its port.
“We unequivocally condemn yesterday’s desecration of the Greek flag in Kastellorizo. Unacceptable actions such as these are aimed at undermining the prospects for de-escalation of the tensions between the two countries,” the Greek foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We expect the immediate condemnation and the prompt investigation of the incident by the Turkish authorities, so that the perpetrators be brought to justice.”
There were also reports of a drone flying over the island Saturday playing Turkish anthems.
The Turkish network Karar TV showed video footage from a drone of the defaced painting, while Greek media reported the network attributed the vandalism to “Turkish engineers” who had thrown “100 kilos of red paint on the Greek flag”.
On August 10, Turkish navy ships escorted an exploration vessel into the waters south off Kastellorizo.
Four days earlier, Athens enraged Ankara after signing an agreement with Cairo on their respective maritime economic zones, claiming the waters around the island are under Greek sovereignty.
Under pressure from European and NATO allies, Turkey pulled back the research ship in a move hailed as a “positive first step” by the Greek prime minister.
The tone has recently softened with Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, agreeing to begin exploratory talks over the dispute.
US Secretary of State Pompeo is due to visit Greece on Monday in a strong sign of support. A US official said he would focus on building relations with Greece but also offer support for diplomacy with Turkey.
Pompeo had a conversation on Sunday on tensions in the eastern Mediterranean with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
“Pleased to speak today with @NATO Secretary General @jensstoltenberg to discuss de-escalation of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and reiterate the importance of NATO Alliance unity,” Pompeo tweeted while en route to Greece.
Relations between NATO members Greece and Turkey, always tense, have further deteriorated this year over long-standing disputes, including maritime boundaries and energy rights. France has been vocal in its support for Greece and the latter’s call for European Union sanctions.
Pompeo is on the first leg of a five-day trip to Europe, which includes visits to Italy, the Vatican and Croatia. It is the first visit by a US secretary of state to Thessaloniki.
According to State Department background briefings, Pompeo will meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to renew the two countries’ shared commitment to advance security, peace, and prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean and celebrate the strongest US-Greek relationship in decades.
On Monday, Pompeo will meet with Dendias, sign a bilateral science and technology agreement, as well as host energy sector business leaders for a discussion to highlight energy diversification and infrastructure projects in Greece. He will also join members of the city’s Jewish community to commemorate Yom Kippur.
Pompeo will depart later Monday to visit the NATO Souda Bay naval base. He will tour the facilities Tuesday and have lunch with Mitsotakis at the latter’s nearby residence. The two will issue a joint statement.
The US secretary of state will depart Greece early Wednesday for Rome.