ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas appealed to NATO allies Greece and Turkey on Tuesday to enter a dialogue and de-escalate military tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, warning of an “abyss” if their dispute is not resolved peacefully.
But rhetoric remained high, with Turkey’s top diplomat warning that if Greece takes “wrongful steps,” Ankara will “do the necessary without any hesitation.”
Maas conducted shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Ankara in a bid to mediate between the neighboring countries who are locked in an acrimonious dispute over maritime boundaries and offshore energy rights. Both have sent warships to shadow each other and announced military exercises within a broad area between Crete and Cyprus where Turkey has a vessel conducting research.
His visits came ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin later this week, at which Turkey will be discussed. Germany holds the rotating EU presidency.
“What we really need is a willingness for dialogue,” Maas said during a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu. “A further escalation is not in the interest of Greece, not in the interest of the EU and also not in the interest of Turkey.”
“The situation is very risky,” Maas warned. “Whoever moves closer and closer to the abyss can at some point fall down. That’s a development which we want to avoid.”
He added: “Nobody wants to solve this conflict militarily, which would be absolute insanity .. but the willingness for dialogue is there.”
In Athens earlier, Maas warned after a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias that “any spark, however small, could lead to a disaster.”
“No one can have an interest in that, and certainly not in a military confrontation between NATO partners and neighbors,” Maas said.
The Turkish vessel Oruc Reis has for weeks been carrying out seismic research escorted by Turkish warships. Greece, which says the ship is operating over the country’s own continental shelf in an area where it has exclusive rights on potential undersea gas and oil deposits, sent warships to shadow the Turkish flotilla.
Turkey disputes Greece’s claims, insisting that small Greek islands near the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries. Ankara accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of the eastern Mediterranean’s resources.
Turkey is also prospecting for hydrocarbons in waters where Cyprus claims exclusive economic rights.
On Tuesday, both Greece and Turkey signaled readiness for dialogue but blamed each other for the tensions.
“Turkey is ready to hold talks with everyone for the fair sharing (of resources),” Cavusoglu said. “Turkey has always supported dialogue with Greece and has been in favor of resolving problems through diplomacy, not conflict.”
“We are not the ones that increase tensions,” he said, blaming Greece for the breakup of previous efforts for a dialogue earlier this month.
Cavusoglu warned: “Greece must forego its spoiled acts. It should not allow itself to be egged on by other countries and put itself into risk… If you take wrongful steps … we would do the necessary without any hesitation.”
In Athens earlier, Dendias said Greece “has proved that it is and remains always ready for dialogue.”
However, he said, “there cannot be dialogue under threats, there cannot be dialogue under provocations and ultimately dialogue cannot be considered, not only for Greece but for any state, when its sovereign rights and sovereignty are being violated.”
The Greek foreign minister accused Turkey of displaying “neo-Ottoman” ideology, referring to Ankara’s perceived desire to revive the Ottoman Turkish empire that once ruled most of the east Mediterranean, including what is now Greece. He insisted Athens would protect its sovereign rights and interests against its much bigger and more heavily armed neighbor.
“As we speak, Turkey continues to act illegally, to escalate, to provoke,” Dendias said. “Instead of a de-escalation, we are witnessing new provocations. We are witnessing the attempt to implement expansionist aims against neighbors and allies.”
Germany’s Maas said he had traveled to Athens with two messages: “One message is that Germany and the whole European Union stand by Greece in firm solidarity,” he said. “The other — equally important — message is that what we now need absolutely and immediately are signals of de-escalation and a readiness for dialogue.”
Maas’s visit comes as Greece began a navy and air force exercise southeast of Crete. On Monday, Greek and U.S. military ships and aircraft also conducted joint drills south of Crete.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry tweeted that two Turkish frigates and an Italian destroyer also conducted training in the eastern Mediterranean Tuesday.
Adding to the tangle of overlapping drills, Cyprus’ Defense Ministry said warplanes and navy ships from France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus would be holding air and sea military exercises off the island nation starting Wednesday.
France and Greece will deploy both aircraft and warships as part of the Aug. 26-28 drills, while Cyprus will activate its air defense system to test its capabilities.
Greece has demanded Turkey withdraw the Oruc Reis. Ankara has refused to back down and extended its notification about the research vessel’s operations to run through Aug. 27.
Athens then announced the military drills. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Monday night that “as of now, Greece will be the only one responsible for any negative development in the region,” and said the Greek exercise “endangers the coastal and navigational safety of all ships in the region.”
The escalating tension has raised concerns of conflict between the two regional rivals, which have come to the brink of war three times since the mid-1970s, including once over prospecting rights in the Aegean Sea.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has warned of the danger of an accident when so many military vessels are concentrated in a small area. Earlier this month, Athens said a Greek frigate and a Turkish frigate escorting the Oruc Reis collided. No injuries were reported on either side. Greek media reported the Turkish frigate had suffered minor damage above the waterline.
Derek Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece. Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin. Elena Becatoros in Athens and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.