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Turkey's Claims For Drilling Rights In Mediterranean Sea Lead To Threats From Greece


All right, let's head overseas now and talk about all the saber-rattling lately over who controls the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey has staked new claims for drilling rights, upsetting countries around that corner of the sea from Egypt and Israel to Cyprus and Greece. It's led to threats and to international pleas for calm. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Greece and Turkey have been neighbors and rivals for a long time. But in early June when Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos spoke to Greece's Star Television about his latest problem with Turkey, he warned that this time, Athens was prepared to do, quote, "whatever it takes" to defend its interests, even if it meant going to war.


NIKOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: Turkey's behavior lately is quite aggressive, he said, adding that besides exhausting diplomatic channels, Greece urgently needed to, quote, "increase the deterrent powers of the armed forces." A poll conducted for a Greek TV station found a majority of Greeks would support military action against Turkey if its maritime borders were violated. When Turkey's defense minister, Hulusi Akar, was asked about his Greek counterpart's comment, he quickly said, it must have been a slip of the tongue.


HULUSI AKAR: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: Akar told a Turkish TV interviewer that he was sure the Greek defense minister must have misspoken because he could state, quote, "with mathematical certainty" that the Greeks would not want to stage a war with Turkey. These rising tensions are not about the usual sticking point between them, the divided island of Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974. This dispute is over potentially lucrative natural gas deposits off the Cypriot coast, and Ankara hasn't been shy about making its intentions clear. Earlier this year, Turkish warships blocked an Italian drilling ship attempting to explore under a license from Cyprus. Then Turkey sent two of its own drilling ships to the area, along with support from the Turkish Navy.

Both the U.S. and EU expressed deep concern about the Turkish moves. But after a phone conversation with President Trump, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan heaped scorn on Greece's threats.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: Erdogan compared Greece to a donkey in a lion's skin, and told Athens to, quote, "come to your senses, know your place," or face a harsh response from Turkey. At the heart of this dispute are two very different pictures of the eastern Mediterranean. One involves a maritime border agreement and a pipeline deal involving Greece, Cyprus and Israel. That appears to put these gas resources within the Cypriot exclusive economic zone. The other involves a much more recent deal between Libya and Turkey, which has been backing the Tripoli government in Libya's ongoing civil war. Ankara says that deal gives Turkey undersea exploration rights. So which interpretation is right?

TAREK MEGERISI: I mean, they're both dubious. This is almost kind of like schoolyard antics in international law.

KENYON: Mid-East and North Africa analyst Tarek Megerisi at the European Council on Foreign Relations says both claims are stretching the law.

MEGERISI: So both sides are kind of really pushing the envelope of what's reasonable and logical to try to make a legal claim that will just support them for long enough to create facts on the water.

KENYON: What's needed, Megerisi says, is for an international power to step in and oversee a reconciliation effort that both sides can live with. But since the United States seems less and less interested in doing that these days, he says it remains to be seen who, if anyone, might be willing and able to take on that role.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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