Athens sticks to low-profile responses as Ankara ups rhetoric over islets

The fallout from Ankara after the Supreme Court’s decision last week not to extradite eight servicemen to stand trial in Turkey for their alleged role in the failed coup attempt in July, continued on Friday, with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim disputing Greece’s sovereignty over “130 small and large chunks of rocks in the Aegean.”

Yildirim said the rocks have “no identity” and that it is not clear who they belong to, while describing Greece’s stance vis-a-vis Turkey’s extradition request as “disappointing.”

He also took a swipe at Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos for flying over the Imia islets this week to drop a wreath to commemorate three Greek servicemen who were killed when their helicopter crashed at the height of the Imia crisis in 1996, which brought the two neighbors to the brink of war.

“Geography is fate and we cannot choose our neighbors,” Yildirim said.

Greece’s sovereignty in the eastern Aegean was also disputed by Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hussein Muftuoglu, who claimed Greece has no right to conduct military exercises on the island of Kos, as it is, he claimed, “demilitarized.”

For its part, Athens appears to be sticking to its strategy of low-key responses to Ankara’s increasingly incendiary rhetoric, with Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias limiting himself to explaining Greece’s sovereign rights and the status of the islands in the eastern Aegean.

It is essential, he told Alpha 98.9 radio on Friday, to keep the lines of communication with Ankara open in order to avoid a “hot incident.”

For Greece, diplomacy and negotiations are fundamental, he said, adding that “the Defense Ministry must do its duty with the means it has, with the hope that there will not be a need to use them.”

Meanwhile, the US has reportedly lauded the Greek Foreign Ministry’s delicate and considered responses, so as to avert a further escalation of tension between the two NATO allies.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras conveyed his concerns about Turkey’s “provocative claims and actions” to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sidelines of an informal summit of European Union leaders in Malta on Friday.

According to government sources, Tsipras told Merkel that Turkey’s actions are undermining Greek-Turkish relations, peace and stability in the wider region.

The latest upsurge in tension has also raised concerns over the fate of the efforts to reunify Cyprus. The talks foundered last month in Geneva over disagreements on post-settlement security. Both sides however have carried on talks and asked the United Nations this week to back another peace conference in March.