TURKEY and Libya have begun implementing agreements on maritime boundaries and military cooperation – inciting an angry reaction from Greece which insists that the measures clearly violate its sovereign rights.
The pacts were signed by Ankara and Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) last month. They took effect over the weekend after receiving the approval of the Turkish parliament and the Libyan presidential council.
In an interview with state broadcaster TRT Haber on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the maritime agreement with Libya – which maps out a boundary between the two countries in the energy-rich eastern Mediterranean close to the Greek island of Crete – was ‘in line’ with international law.
The agreement, he added, allowed Turkey to carry out drilling on Libya’s continental shelf with Tripoli’s approval.
‘With this new agreement between Turkey and Libya, we can hold joint exploration operations in these exclusive economic zones that we determined. There is no problem,’ Erdogan said.
Under the deal, he noted, Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel need Turkey’s consent for establishing a gas transmission line in the region.
‘Other international actors cannot carry out exploration operations in these areas Turkey drew (up) with this accord without getting permission. Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a gas transmission line without first getting permission from Turkey,’ Erdogan said.
Erdogan further referred to another agreement signed between Turkey and Libya to expand security and military cooperation, saying it granted Ankara the right to deploy troops in Libya if the Tripoli government so asked.
‘In the event of such a call coming, it is Turkey’s decision what kind of initiative it will take here. We will not seek the permission of anyone on this,’ he said, stressing that such a move would not violate a United Nations arms embargo on Libya.
But the maritime deal has clearly angered Greece, which has slammed it as an ‘infringement on its sovereignty’ that could – and clearly does – complicate Athens’ decades-old disputes with Ankara over Cyprus and maritime rights in the Aegean Sea.
Athens has now given Libyan Ambassador to Athens Mohamed Younis A.B. Menfi just 72 hours to leave the country.
‘It is with great sadness that I announce to you that this morning the Libyan Ambassador in Athens was called to the Ministry (of Foreign Affairs), where he was briefed about the decision to expel him,’ Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said at a press conference.
‘The decision to expel him is an expression of the dissatisfaction of the Greek government with the government in Tripoli. It was taken after the Libyan side did not respond to the conditions we had set,’ Denidas added.
Erdogan denounced Greece’s decision to expel the Libyan envoy as an ‘international scandal’, and warned that Athens would ‘pay the price for its actions internationally.’
Then speaking on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Turkey-Libya maritime deal was ‘a cause of serious concern’ and ‘problematic’ for both Greece and Cyprus.’
‘We express our solidarity and our support to Greece and Cyprus,’ he said after a meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
And on Friday Turkey condemned as unacceptable statements by EU leaders bitterly critical of Ankara’s policies towards bloc members Cyprus and Greece, raising tensions days ahead of a key summit.
‘The statement that was issued contained unacceptable comments against our country that serve the interests of Greece and the Greek Cypriots,’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy told reporters in response to Thursday’s EU statement.
EU President Donald Tusk and Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker are due now to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Bulgarian city of Varna.
Aksoy complained that the EU had backed Athens and Nicosia simply because they are members, ‘without considering whether they are right’.
‘The EU has lost its objectivity on the Cyprus issue,’ he said.
The statement by the 28 European Union members meeting in Brussels condemned Turkey’s ‘illegal actions’ towards Greece and Cyprus after Ankara’s arrest of two Greek soldiers and its promise to prevent the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot government from exploring for oil and gas.
- Cyprus has been divided since 1974 – when Turkish troops invaded and occupied the northern third of the island in response to what it said was a ‘Greek military junta-sponsored coup’.
But while the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognised, the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Ankara.
Erdogan has warned foreign energy companies not to ‘overstep the mark’ after Turkey’s warships blocked an Italian drilling vessel of energy giant ENI off Cyprus in February.
The Greek soldiers were arrested on March 2 for entering a military zone in the northern Turkish province of Edirne, and have now been remanded in custody ahead of trial.
A Turkish court then rejected a request for the release of two Greek soldiers arrested for illegally crossing the border into the country.
On Friday, the Greek defence minister said the two soldiers, a lieutenant and a sergeant, being detained in Turkey were ‘hostages.’
The soldiers were detained on March 2 for entering a forbidden military zone in the northern province of Edirne in Turkey, and as Turkish security sources reported the two men faced charges of ‘attempted military espionage.’
Lawyers for the two soldiers filed a demand for their release at the court in Edirne.
However, the Turkish court rejected the appeal and ruled that the pair must remain in custody on the grounds that they did not have permanent residence in Turkey and should await the result of examining the ‘digital data’ seized from them, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.
Rejecting the allegations levelled by Turkey, the Greek army said the two had accidentally lost their way in bad weather while patrolling around the Evros River that divides the two neighbouring countries.
The soldiers told prosecutors that they had erroneously entered through a border crossing after ‘following footprints in the snow in an attempt to stop migrant smuggling.’
Meanwhile, in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit published on Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey’s judiciary was seeking to determine whether the Greek soldiers crossed into Turkey by accident or deliberately.
Asked whether Ankara was considering exchanging the soldiers with eight Turkish servicemen who fled to Greece following an attempted Turkish coup in 2016, Cavusoglu ruled out such a prospect, saying: ‘We do not want such an agreement.’
The eight Turkish troops had rejected any involvement in the attempted coup, and Greek courts ruled they would be at risk of not receiving a fair trial if returned to their home country.
But thousands of military and police officers have been jailed or dismissed from their jobs over an alleged role in the coup. The eight who fled to Greece have repeatedly claimed that they feared for their lives back home.
- The summit between Erdogan and the EU chiefs is seen as crucial in setting up the future framework of Turkey’s relationship with the bloc.
Turkey had sought to join the EU for over half a century, but membership talks hit the buffers over the crackdown imposed in the wake of the 2016 failed coup.
Some EU leaders have suggested membership is no longer realistic, and a pragmatic partnership could perhaps be forged instead.
‘Of course this summit is important for us. We are expecting relations with the EU to be energised,’ said Aksoy.
The Greek defence minister has meanwhile slammed Turkey for what he claimed was violation of its airspace and territorial waters, while warning that Athens was on the verge of a ‘fatal accident’ with Ankara.
‘We are very close to a fatal accident,’ he said. ‘When our airspace is violated, we send our aircraft to drive the Turkish aircraft outside our airspace,’ Panos Kammenos said in an interview with French newspaper Liberation on Saturday, according to the Greek Reporter news website.
‘Greece is basically at the mercy of an accident that can at any moment engulf the coastguard, navy etc.,’ he added.
The Greek defence chief added that, by violating Greece’s airspace and territorial waters, ‘Ankara is also trying to exert pressure on Europe.’
‘We are obliged to defend our territory which is not only Greek but also European,’ he said.
Meanwhile US Ambassador to Athens Jeffry Pyatt expressed concern some time ago about the Greek-Turkish tensions in the Aegean Sea.
‘My concern, my fear, is the accident … As long as you have these lethal complex military systems operating close to each other there is always a terrible risk of an accident, which of course will cause great complications in your relationship,’ he said in January.