NATO says alliance members Turkey and Greece have agreed to hold “technical talks” on ways to de-escalate military tensions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea over disputed gas exploration activities.
Tensions are running high over Turkey’s drilling activities, which Greece and Cyprus say violate their sovereignty, and both sides have deployed warships in a show of force, raising fears of conflict erupting by accident.
“Following my discussions with Greek and Turkish leaders, the two allies have agreed to enter into technical talks at NATO to establish mechanisms for military de-confliction to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean,” NATO chief chief Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement on Thursday.
“Greece and Turkey are valued allies, and NATO is an important platform for consultations on all issues that affect our shared security.”
But later on Thursday, Greece denied it had agreed to hold NATO-brokered talks with Turkey, according to media reports quoting Greek foreign ministry sources as saying that “de-escalation would only be achieved with the immediate withdrawal of all Turkish ships from the Greek continental shelf”.
On Friday morning, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece should drop “threats” against his country if talks are to commence.
“Let threats go away so that the contacts can begin,” Mitsotakis said as he met a visiting senior member of the Chinese Communist party.
Ankara, meanwhile, said it backed the idea of talks at NATO.
“This initiative is supported by our country,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday. “We expect Greece to support the NATO secretary general’s initiative.”
The Turkish statement stressed that the talks would only focus on avoiding accidents and not resolving the sides’ differences over maritime borders and energy exploration rights.
But obersvers still hope the talks will at least offer an opening for further dialogue between the two neighbours.
The NATO chief’s announcement came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the two sides to reduce tensions and open diplomatic channels to ease the crisis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a defiant tone this week, extending the gas exploration mission and saying Ankara would not be intimidated by Greece’s support from European military powers such as France.
Large reserves of natural gas are believed to be located in the eastern Mediterranean, which Turkey is exploring in maritime areas claimed by Cyprus or Greece.
Ankara sent out drillships to explore for energy on its continental shelf, saying it and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have hydrocarbon exploration rights in the region.
The EU has repeatedly urged Turkey to stop its exploration activities and threatened to slap sanctions on Ankara if it refused to solve the dispute through dialogue.
Meanwhile, Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the situation in a videoconference on Thursday.
The two leaders agreed on a “need to reduce regional tensions,” according to Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
A statement from Erdogan’s office said: “Our president said it was unacceptable for some countries to support the selfish and unjust attitude of Greece.”