Greece Welcomes French Boost as Tension Rises in East Mediterranean Sea

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -
This photo provided by the Greek National Defence shows Greek and French military vessels during a maritime exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean. (Greek National Defence via AP)

Greece’s prime minister warmly thanked France Thursday for boosting its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek and Turkish warships are closely shadowing each other over a Turkish energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own.

Meanwhile, Turkey accused Greece and the island nation of Cyprus of encroaching on its rights in the Mediterranean and vowed to defend its interests in the region, but also called for dialogue to resolve the dispute.

The mounting territorial tension follows Turkey’s move to send a seismic research vessel, escorted by warships, into waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus to prospect for potential offshore gas and oil reserves, following similar discoveries in other parts of the region.

Greece claims part of the area is over its own continental shelf and has demanded that the Turkish ships withdraw. Turkey counters that it’s entitled to conduct research in the area. Greece placed its military on alert, and sent warships to the area off Turkey’s southern coast.

The Greek Defense Ministry said the French frigate Lafayette and the helicopter carrier Tonnerre held joint exercises with four Greek frigates Thursday in the eastern Mediterranean, including in areas Turkey is exploring. Two French Rafale fighter jets are making a stop Thursday at Souda, on Crete, after being previously deployed in Cyprus for an exercise.

The French Defense Ministry said France’s military presence “is aiming at reinforcing France’s autonomous assessment of the situation and affirms the country’s attachment to free movement, maritime safety and respect for international law in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Greece’s NATO and European Union ally France is the EU’s biggest military power. Complicating matters, Turkey — Greece’s historic regional rival — is also a NATO member but has poor relations with France.

On Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to Israel for talks on the matter, as well as on a project between Israel, Greece and Cyprus to transport Israeli gas from offshore reserves through an undersea pipeline to Italy.

Dendias said that during meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign MInister Gabi Ashkenazi, he thanked them for Israel’s support and “made it clear that Turkey’s illicit behavior poses a threat to all countries in our region – a threat to security and stability.”

PM Netanyahu said Greece and Israel enjoy shared interests.

“Obviously, we view gravely any aggression by anyone, including Turkey, in the eastern Mediterranean,” Netanyahu said.

Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christoulides tweeted Thursday that Israel’s FM Ashkenazi communicated with him to “reiterate Israel’s support and solidarity in the face of escalating aggression in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”