ISTANBUL: A Turkish research ship at the centre of a row with Greece over gas exploration has left disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean and returned to the coast in a move hailed as a “positive first step” by the Greek prime minister.

The Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel backed by Turkish navy frigates has been deployed to waters near the Greek island of Kastellorizo since August 10 despite repeated protests from Athens and the European Union.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar confirmed that the ship has returned to the Turkish coast while ship-tracking websites marinetraffic.com and vesselfinder.com showed it in waters near the port of Antalya.

“There will be planned movements backwards and forwards,” Akar told state news agency Anadolu in Antalya.

He said the movement away from the contested waters, which are claimed by both countries, did not mean Turkey “would be giving up on our rights there”.

But the decision not to extend the ship’s mission was viewed as “a step towards giving diplomacy a chance,” the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said on Sunday, linking it to attempts to kickstart talks between Greece and Turkey, who are both Nato partners.

“This is a positive first step,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters at a press conference in the Greek city Thessaloniki on Sunday.

“I hope there will be more of them.” France, already at odds with Turkey over Libya and Syria, has sent in its own naval ships into the region to support Greece, which announced major new arms purchases on Saturday, including French-made Rafale fighter jets.

Akar slammed French President Emmanuel Macron, accusing him of “provoking and encouraging” Greece.

The decision to send the Oruc Reis ship to map out potential gas and oil drilling spots is seen as part of Turkey’s so-called “Blue Homeland” strategy of staking out claims to energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

The lack of agreed maritime borders between Turkey and Greece, or Turkey and Cyprus, have led to tensions since the discovery of major hydrocarbon reserves in the region in the past decade.

Efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the latest standoff have so far proved fruitless.

Nato said earlier this month that officials from both sides had agreed to take part in technical talks to avoid accidents between their navies.

Athens denied this was the case, but the Turkish defence ministry said on Thursday that the first round of talks between Greek and Turkish military delegations took place at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.

While Turkey repeatedly said it was ready for dialogue without preconditions, Greece said there could only be talks once Ankara stopped making “threats”.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited the island of Kastellorizo near the disputed waters on Sunday where she said Turkey was “mounting pressure” on Athens.

“We are going through a difficult and dangerous period. The Turkish leadership... is undermining the peaceful coexistence that was built over many decades by Greeks and Turks, who saw the sea between them not as an impenetrable frontier but as a passage of communication,” Sakellaropoulou said.

Leaders of seven European countries on the Mediterranean met at a summit last week in Corsica where they said they were ready to back EU sanctions on Turkey over the dispute.

Any action by Brussels will be discussed at a European Council summit on September 24 and 25.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday warned Macron “not to mess” with Turkey in his latest verbal salvo directed at Paris.

“Don’t mess with the Turkish people. Don’t mess with Turkey,” Erdogan said during a televised speech in Istanbul.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2020