by Aggelos Skordas
Yet another serious incident involving a patrolling off-shore vessel of the Hellenic Coastguard and a Turkish patrol vessel occurred off the islets of Imia, in the southeastern Aegean Sea, at around midnight on Monday. Specifically, at 11.40 pm (local time) the Turkish patrol boat “Umut” rammed the Greek off-shore vessel “Gavdos” after entering Greek territorial waters. The impact caused minor damages to the Greek vessel’s stern thus it was immediately transferred to Leros for repair but no injuries were reported among the 27-men crew.
The impact, caused by the Turkish vessel’s harassing maneuvers, comes only days after the neighboring country’s media published a video footage showing yet another Turkish Coastguard patrol vessel dangerously approaching the Greek gunboat “Nikiforos” off the uninhabited islets that in January 1996 brought the two countries to the brink of war, known as the Imia Crisis, and have since been the scene of numerous “hot” incidents. Turkish officials have repeatedly disputed the Greek sovereignty over numerous islands and islets, while the Turkish naval presence in the Eastern Aegean Sea is increasing.
Moreover, a few hours before the incident, Turkish Chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, stated that his country has is capable of conducting military operations in the Kurdish-majority Afrin Region of northern Syria, codenamed “Olive Branch”, and in the Aegean Sea concurrently and that Turkey is determined to preserve its interests in all its seas. The heightened tension in the area as well as off the coasts of Cyprus was also confirmed by remarks of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who warned Greece “not to make the wrong step in Cyprus and the Aegean”.
Following the ramming of the Greek off-shore vessel by the Turkish patrol boat Greece filed a strongly-worded demarche with the Turkish embassy, while the Hellenic Coastguard in an official statement confirmed that the Turkish boat had entered Greek territorial waters. Foreign Ministry Secretary General Dimitrios Paraskevopoulos conveyed the Greek government’s protest and the Turkish ambassador to Athens, Yasar Halit Cevik, was called to the ministry for explanations.
“Dangerous incidents such as these, which place human lives at risk, are the result of the escalating and provocative conduct that Turkey has increasingly exhibited in recent days. Turkey must stop violating international law and refrain from acts that do not contribute to the development of relations between the two countries. Such acts undermine regional security and stability, which Greece upholds and will continue to do so”, the statement issued by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads.
Furthermore, according to diplomatic sources, the Greek government has already informed its allies and partners about the incident, including the United States, Germany and members of the United Nations Security Council. It has also filed protests with the European Union, which already issued related statements, and NATO. “Turkey needs to respect the sovereignty of European Union member states”, Chief Spokesperson of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas declared:
“We are following this development closely. We reiterate the need for Turkey to commit unequivocally to good neighborly relations and avoid any kind of source of friction or action directed against member states, which damages good neighborly relations and the peaceful settlement of disputes. We also would like to stress the need to respect the sovereignty of member states over their territorial sea and airspace”, Schinas said while confirming that the Greek vessel involved in the incident had been co-financed by the common European border and coast guard. “I think that this is another compelling reason that reinforces my statement because the European Union taxpayer contributes to the effective policing of the external border of the European Union”, he concluded.
On his behalf the Greek government’s spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, in an interview with Alpha 989 radio underlined that “the government has repeatedly said that it will resolutely defend the sovereign rights of the country”. In addition, he stressed that Athens has recently noted an “intensifying Turkish provocativeness that gravely concerns us… Therefore, we have to be very careful and monitor the situation and developments”.