Turkey on Monday returned an exploration vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to search for natural gas, at the risk of rekindling a crisis with Greece which denounced a “direct threat to peace”.
The seismic research vessel Oruç Reis left its Turkish port in the morning, according to images released by the media, and will conduct exploration activities until October 22, the Turkish navy said in a maritime information notice ( NAVTEX).
“We will continue to search (for gas), to dig and to defend our rights,” Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez said on Twitter on Monday.
The Oruç Reis, which is accompanied by two logistical support ships, is to be deployed in particular to the south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, close to the Turkish coast and at the heart of high tensions between Ankara and Athens last summer.
Athens and Ankara have indeed experienced a month of strong tensions after the deployment by Turkey, from August 10 to mid-September, of this seismic boat, escorted by warships, to carry out explorations off Kastellorizo, in an area potentially rich in natural gas.
Greece claims sovereignty over the waters around Kastellorizo, but Turkey contests this dominance, arguing that it should have more extensive rights in the eastern Mediterranean due to its longer coastline.
Echoing the almost daily tense exchanges last month, Greece’s foreign ministry on Monday condemned Turkey’s decision to deploy Oruc Reis again, calling it a “direct threat to peace and security in the region.”
Turkey is “unreliable” and “does not sincerely desire dialogue,” the Greek ministry said in a statement.
“Radiographing the Mediterranean”
The new deployment of Oruc Reis undermines hopes for de-escalation that had arisen in recent weeks.
Tensions began after the deployment of the same ship on August 10. Ankara had extended its mission several times, ignoring repeated calls from the European Union and Athens to end it.
The Orus Reis, however, returned to the Turkish coast last month, while in waters claimed by Greece, in what many hoped would be a sign of appeasement for Ankara to resolve the crisis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then said that this withdrawal was intended to give diplomacy a chance.
But Turkish officials also said the ship would simply do scheduled maintenance, and return to the Eastern Mediterranean to continue its work.
“The maintenance work on the Oruc Reis has been completed. Our ship took (equipment) to X-ray the Mediterranean, “Dönmez said on Monday. If there is natural gas, “we’ll find it,” he added.
Hope had reappeared, however, when Ankara and Athens agreed to conduct negotiations last month, notably following German diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
The highest-level exchanges since the tensions began took place last week when Turkish and Greek foreign ministers met on the sidelines of a security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia.
At a summit earlier this month, the EU threatened Ankara with sanctions if Turkey did not end energy exploration activities in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.
Turkey had described the threat as “unconstructive” and its latest move risks fueling tensions between Ankara and Brussels.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is due to travel to Ankara on Wednesday, according to Turkish state television TRT, for a meeting in which the issue of the Eastern Mediterranean will take center stage.