Turkey says east Med ship will return after maintenance

(FILES) This file photo taken on August 23, 2019 in Istanbul shows a view of Turkish General Directorate of Mineral research and Exploration’s (MTA) Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. – The Turkish research ship at the centre of a row with Greece over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean has left disputed waters where it was sent last month, according to ship-tracking websites and local media, in a move that could soothe spiralling tensions in the region. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

ANKARATurkey (AFP) — Turkey said on Monday that an energy exploration vessel that had pulled out of waters claimed by Greece was only undergoing routine maintenance and would return soon.

The Oruc Reis seismic survey ship has been unsettling the strategic eastern Mediterranean region since Turkey sent it along with a small navy flotilla into disputed seas on August 10.

This handout photograph released by the Turkish Defence Ministry on August 12, 2020, shows Turkish seismic research vessel ‘Oruc Reis’ (C) as it is escorted by Turkish Naval ships in the Mediterranean Sea, off Antalya on August 10, 2020.(Photo by TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY / AFP)

Greece responded by staging navy drills with France and several EU allies near ones Turkey was holding last month.

The escalating row has seen Germany try to mediate a solution and NATO host consultations aimed at avoiding the two alliance members accidentally going to war — as they almost did over a few contested islands in 1996.

Ankara confirmed on Sunday that the ship had pulled out of the contested waters and returned to the Turkish coast.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed it as a “positive first step”.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it would be a “mistake” for Greece to interpret the Oruc Reis’s withdrawal as a step back by Ankara.

This handout photograph released by the Turkish Defence Ministry on August 12, 2020, shows Turkish seismic research vessel ‘Oruc Reis’ heading in the west of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea.  (Photo by Handout / TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY / AFP)

“This is routine maintenance and (crew) replenishment work,” Cavusoglu said in a televised interview.

“Greece can perceive it as a step back in the face of our determination,” he said. “It is suffering the insecurities of a small country.”

The Turkish energy ministry said in a separate statement that after undergoing “examination and care, the vessel will continue its seismic search and research activities”.

Disputed map

Ankara is frustrated that Greece is using its far-flung eastern islands to claim control over waters near the Turkish shore.

The European Union has fully backed Athens and dangled the threat of economic sanctions against Turkey being adopted at a summit planned for September 24-25.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,(R) and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades are pictured before giving a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the capital Nicosia on September 12, 2020. (Photo by Petros Karadjias / POOL / AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Cyprus on Sunday that Washington was also “deeply concerned” by Turkish exploration “in areas over which Greece and Cyprus assert jurisdiction”.

Turkey directs much of its fury at the so-called “Seville map” that Greece uses to justify its claims.

The map was drawn up by Spain’s University of Seville on commission from the European Union in the early 2000s.

It suggests granting full economic zones to Greece’s small islands in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas.

Turkey says the map breaches its sovereignty and contradicts past examples of countries’ distant islands not being given full economic zones.

Cavusoglu on Monday called the map “the cause of all the tension”.

The two sides could enter direct negotiations “if (Greece) gives up its maximalist demands. It could forgo the Seville map,” Cavusoglu said.

“But there is no good will in Greece. We haven’t seen it yet.”