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Turkey returns controversial ship to eastern Mediterranean

The Turkish exploration vessel Oruc Reis is returned to the eastern Mediterranean “from October 12 to 20” in the area where it was in August and September, the Turkish navy said on Sunday, which could generate further tensions with Greece .

Athens immediately condemned, on Monday, this upcoming dismissal of the ship, qualifying it as a “direct threat to peace and security in the region”.

Oruc Reis will operate activities in the region, including south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, according to the message sent by the maritime warning system NAVTEX.

Athens and Ankara 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 this Greek island, in 2 km from the Turkish coast, an area potentially rich in natural gas.

Two other ships deployed

Greece claims power over the waters surrounding Kastellorizo, but Turkey rejects its dominance, insisting that it has more extensive rights in the eastern Mediterranean due to its longer coastline.

Ankara began by deploying Oruc Reis and military ships to these disputed waters on August 10 and lengthened their mission, ignoring repeated calls from the European Union and Athens to end it.

The ship had returned to the Turkish coast last month, while in waters claimed by Greece, in what many hoped was a sign of de-escalation to resolve this crisis.

It will be joined during the next “seismic sounding” mission by two other ships called Ataman and Cengiz Han, according to NAVTEX.

What about negotiations?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then declared that this withdrawal was intended to give diplomacy a chance. But Turkish officials also explained that the ship will simply perform scheduled maintenance, and return to the Eastern Mediterranean to continue its work.

Hope was reappeared, however, when Ankara and Athens agreed to conduct negotiations last month, particularly following German-led diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.

Discussions had been delayed since 2016 and were supposed to resume in Istanbul but no date had ever been given.

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.

Threats of European sanctions

At a summit earlier this month, the EU threatened Ankara with sanctions if Turkey fails to halt energy exploration activities in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Turkey had described the threat as “non-constructive”, but its latest move will add strain to relations between Ankara and Brussels.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is due to travel to Ankara on Wednesday, according to Turkish state media TRT, for a meeting in which the issue of the Eastern Mediterranean will take center stage.

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