GeriGündem Greece, Turkey feel tension in the air
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Greece, Turkey feel tension in the air

TANAGRA - Inside the bunkered briefing room, colored pins mark Greek and Turkish air force bases on a large map of the Aegean Sea. But outside, jets roar into the sky as Greek pilots intercept Turkish fighters in fiercely contested air space.

This air base is at the sharp end of a dispute burdened by wars, piles of international agreements and peace treaties, and unusual geography that has kept prospects of a solution between the two NATO allies remote. Greece and Turkey remain at odds over air and sea boundaries and flight rules in the Aegean. So in an area best known for its holiday beach resorts, armed warplanes routinely carry out interceptions and mock dogfights. "This is what we do every day," said 332 Squadron Commander Antonis Vassiliou, whose outfit uses French-built Mirage 2000 jets for interception missions out of Tanagra Air Force base, 40 miles north of Athens. "It's our way of life ... we remain prepared to address a situation that has built up over years and is likely to continue for many years," he said. That worries politicians.

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis warned recently that Greek-Turkish relations are effectively at a standstill, after a decade of steady improvement. The two countries came to the brink of war three times between 1974 and 1996 over the Aegean and divided Cyprus.

Greek officials say the number of violations has held constant at about 1,500 each year, but that Turkish pilots have adopted more aggressive patrolling tactics such as low-altitude flights over few-populated islands. The increased aggression is troubling, Bakoyannis said.

In recent years, there was some thaw in the hostile relations between the two countries. In 2002, Greek and Turkish diplomats launched exploratory talks on their disputes. Business deals have steadily increased and include a pipeline link that will be used to carry natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe. But the Aegean remains a source of contention.

Greece, whose easternmost islands shave Turkey's coastline, says there is no issue up for discussion except setting the limits for the continental shelf, allowing each country to mark out where it can exploit seabed oil and mineral deposits. Turkey says Greece is hindering its access to international waters and air space in the Aegean and that it is not carrying out any air space violations since it defines the area within Greece's control differently from Greek Authorities.

Athens says the area in space is the equivalent to 10 nautical miles from earth, but Ankara recognizes the area equivalent to only six nautical miles, and Turkish jets frequently fly through the remaining area of four nautical miles. Turkey also does not submit flight plans to Greek civil aviation authorities when flying over the Aegean.

Turkish officials say sovereignty has yet to be determined over many small uninhabited islands near its shores Ğ a claim that outrages Greece.

Turkey’s much larger military remains a source of insecurity for Greece. But Turkey also wants to join the EU, and quarrels with Greece could hurt its goal. Greece is now a strong supporter of Turkish accession to the EU, dropping objections a decade ago in the hope of easing regional tension. But Greek analyst Sotiris Roussos said Greek politicians relied too heavily on expectations that support for Turkey's bid would help calm disputes. "Now cracks have appeared in this strategy," said Roussos, an associate professor at the University of Peloponnese, who also said that Turkey faces difficulties in meeting EU criteria. "Greece's political elite now have nothing else to say. We have returned to the way of thinking that we previously had, matching orders for planes and tanks."

Turkish analyst Yucel Acer said both governments fear appearing weak domestically over the Aegean, but the pressure is on Turkey to come up with a solution so EU membership talks can go forward. He said that in Turkey, public opinion always tends to think the EU is backing Greece instead.

Acer said Turkish officials had considered the idea of a potential solution involving varied territorial water limits for Greece in the Aegean, possibly 12 miles for the mainland and smaller boundaries for eastern Aegean islands. But the suggestion was not well received in Greece. "At the moment, conditions are not right on both sides for a compromise," said Acer, an associate professor at Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University.

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