ANKARA – Greece voiced hope Monday that the threat of sanctions from its European Union partners would convince Turkey to stop its offshore energy prospecting in contested eastern Mediterranean waters, which has plunged the two regional rivals into their worst crisis since 1974.
But Ankara later said it was extending its oil and gas exploration mission for another 10 days.
Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told state ERT TV that Turkey faces a “clear” message: “Either act to de-escalate (the situation) or face sanctions.”
The EU on Friday urged Turkey to halt what it called its “illegal” prospecting activities. It said plans to blacklist Turkish officials linked to the energy exploration could be extended, which could possibly include economic sanctions against Turkey.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday spoke on the phone to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to brief him on the outcome of Friday's EU foreign ministers' meeting, including measures the 27-nation bloc is prepared to take..
Petsas said the threat of sanctions gave Turkey an “exit strategy” from the evolving crisis. Over the past few weeks, the two nominal NATO allies' warships and warplanes have been milling around each other aggressively between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, amid high rhetoric from both Athens and Ankara — which has repeatedly threatened Greece with military action.
"It is in Turkey’s interest above all, with its economy shaken and so many open fronts, to realize that right now Europe is offering it a way out ... (allowing) the peaceful settling of our differences to define maritime zones between the two countries," Petsas said.
Greece says the Turkish prospecting for potential offshore gas and oil overlaps part of its continental shelf. Ankara says it has every right to send its research vessel there, escorted by warships.
Late Monday Turkey said it was extending its prospecting from Sept. 2 to Sept. 12. The Greek foreign ministry issued a statement labeling Ankara as a regional “troublemaker and element of instability.”
“We invite Turkey to desist from its daily rants and work towards regional security and stability,” a ministry statement said.
Both countries have been carrying out navy and airforce wargames off and on in the eastern Mediterranean for weeks.
Greece and Cyprus were last week joined by France — which is reportedly discussing a major deal to sell warships and warplanes to Greece — Italy and the United Arab Emirates in an exercise off Cyprus.
Petsas said in his interview Monday that the government will announce in mid-September “a specific package to strengthen” the armed forces, but provided no further details. Press reports have speculated that the deal with France could involve Greece buying 18 fighter jets and two naval frigates, which would help reduce its much larger neighbor's considerable military superiority.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday his country was ready to pay for its efforts to defend its rights in the eastern Mediterranean. He asked whether the people of Greece and France were ready to make the same sacrifices due to the “greed and incompetence” of their leaders.
On Monday, Turkey accused Greece of “piracy” following claims of a troop build-up, in violation of treaties, on a tiny, far-flung Greek island just off Turkey — allegations which Athens denied.
Turkish ruling party spokesman Omer Celik commented on reports that Greece had clandestinely sent soldiers to Kastellorizo, around 600 kilometers (370 miles) from the Greek mainland, 125 kilometers (78 miles) from the nearest Greek territory and two kilometers (1.25 miles) from the Turkish coast.
“Pointing guns toward Turkey’s coasts is foolishness,” he warned.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said late Sunday that if the reports were true, then the move would amount to a violation of a 1947 treaty and “a new indication of Greece’s unlawfulness."
Petsas said Greece “must show that it has the deterrent power it needs to protect its sovereign rights.”
Greek defense officials said soldiers were sent to Kastellorizo as part of a regular garrison rotation and that there was no military buildup on the island.
Athens argues that Turkey isn't a signatory of the 1947 treaty ceding the southeast Aegean islands to Greece.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Derek Gatopoulos contributed to this report from Athens, Greece.