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Tensions soar in eastern Mediterranean as Turkey resumes seismic surveys

13 October 2020

Tensions have escalated in the eastern Mediterranean after Turkey announced on October 12 that it would be resuming seismic survey activity in contested waters having stopped in September to open diplomatic talks with Greece and Cyprus. The resumption of surveying led to Greece demanding that Turkey “immediately cease its illegal actions” and for the EU to impose sanctions.

The Oruç Reis - Image: Turkey's Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources
The Oruç Reis - Image: Turkey's Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources

The Turkish vessel, Oruç Reis, set sail on October 12 along with two other ships to conduct surveys and search for natural resources in an area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo which lies just one mile off Turkey’s southern coast. Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the surveys would last until October 22 in an area that is “15 kilometres distance to the nearest point in Turkey and 425 kilometres away from the Greek mainland.”

The Oruç Reis had been withdrawn from contested eastern Mediterranean waters in September just before an EU summit at which Cyprus was seeking sanctions against Turkey, Reuters news agency reports. Turkish officials insisted that the ship was withdrawn for maintenance and repair operations.

In a statement, Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, Turkey’s "illegal surveys" were being conducted on the Greek continental shelf and that the surveys constitute a major escalation and direct threat to peace and security in the region.

“Turkey is persisting with the use of aggressive and illegal tactics of past centuries, thus confirming its role as the prime factor for instability and violation of international legality in the region. Turkey systematically ignores International Law, the International Law of the Sea and the rules of good neighbourly relations. It undermines every effort towards dialogue, defying the calls of the International Community,” the statement said.

In response, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it rejects Greece’s “groundless allegations” which it said are incompatible with international law. “The claims of Greece that the island of Kastellorizo can create a maritime area of 40 thousand square kilometres are compatible neither with international law nor with international court decisions,” it said. It also called on Greece to end its “escalatory exercises and military activities” in the Aegean and the Mediterranean and to enter into dialogue and exploratory talks.

The EU has previously said it would impose sanctions on Turkey if it continued drilling operations in contested waters off the Cypriot coast. In February 2020, the EU imposed sanctions on two individuals for their roles in drilling operations, one step short of imposing sanctions on the country itself.

The US has urged Turkey to end its provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece. In a statement, the US Department of State said, “The United States deplores Turkey’s October 11 announcement of renewed Turkish survey activity in areas over which Greece asserts jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s announcement unilaterally raises tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between our NATO Allies Greece and Turkey.

“Coercion, threats, intimidation, and military activity will not resolve tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. We urge Turkey to end this calculated provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece. Unilateral actions cannot build trust and will not produce enduring solutions.”

As Turkey announced the resumption of seismic research, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez tweeted, "We will continue research, drilling and protect our rights." Donmez added that his country was determined to find natural resources in the region, if there were any.

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