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Turkish ship starts energy search; Greece issues warnings

ANKARA – A Turkish research vessel has begun surveying for energy resources in contested areas of the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s energy minister said Wednesday, amid escalating tensions between NATO allies and regional rivals Greece and Turkey over offshore oil and gas exploration rights.

The Oruc Reis was conducting seismic research in an area Greece says is over its continental shelf, and Athens has demanded the ship's withdrawal. Both countries have warships shadowing the vessel.

“Our country never threatens but will not suffer blackmail either. This is why it does not succumb to threats or tolerate provocative acts," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised statement Wednesday evening.

Mitsotakis said Greece had deployed naval vessels to the area and placed its military on alert in response to the Turkish deployment of its own fleet.

“Let it be known: The risk of an accident lurks when so many military assets are gathered in such a contained area,” Mitsotakis said. “In such a case, responsibility lies upon the one who gives rise to these circumstances.”

The prime minister said Greece “(does) not fear even the toughest dialogue,” as it had faith in its positions, but that "dialogue becomes irrelevant in a climate of tension and provocation.”

“We will never be the ones to escalate the situation. Yet, self-restraint is only one aspect of our power,” Mitsotakis said. “No provocation will ... go unanswered. We have demonstrated that we will respond, if necessary. And we will do so again if it is required.”

Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez said on Twitter that the Oruc Reis was “taking the x-ray of our seas." He said the the vessel had also lowered 1,750 kilometers (1,087 miles) of seismic cables into the Mediterranean.

Greece has called on Turkey to withdraw vessels from the area. Turkey said Tuesday it would not back away from its search activities, adding that it plans to issue new exploration licenses for the area despite the escalating dispute with Greece over drilling rights.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is scheduled to see U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday in Vienna, with the meeting to focus on Turkey’s actions and developments in the eastern Mediterranean, and was to travel to Israel for talks on Thursday.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted on Wednesday that he was calling an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council meeting for Friday, to discuss the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the presidential elections in Belarus and developments in Lebanon after a massive deadly explosion there.

Greece had called for the emergency meeting over what it termed the “growing Turkish provocation and delinquency,” and Dendias will be participating via video link from Vienna.

Turkey announced that the Oruc Reis would be operating in the Mediterranean Sea between Cyprus and Greece until Aug. 23. The vessel arrived in the area Monday morning, escorted by Turkish warships. Greek warships were sent to the area.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides described Turkey’s move as a serious escalation to its unlawful actions in the eastern Mediterranean a few days after another of its survey ships, the Barbaros, began a hydrocarbons search in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone southeast of the island nation.

“Unfortunately, once again Turkey has chosen the route of unilateral unlawful actions, provocatively turning its back on the prospect of dialogue based on international law and good neighborly relations,” Christodoulides told state-run Cyprus News Agency.

He said Turkey’s actions against two EU member states should be taken into account in the country’s relations with the bloc.

Relations between Greece and Turkey have traditionally been terse, and the neighbors have long been at loggerheads over a slew of disputes. The two have come to the brink of war three times since the mid-1970s, including once over drilling exploration rights in the Aegean Sea that separates the two countries. Recent discoveries of natural gas and drilling plans across the eastern Mediterranean have led to renewed tension.

Ankara was angered by a deal Greece signed with Egypt on Thursday delineating their bilateral maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones for rights to the exploitation of resources. Turkish officials said the deal came as Turkey and Greece were making progress in informal talks brokered by Berlin.

Last year, Turkey signed a similar deal with the U.N.-backed government in strife-torn Libya, sparking outrage in Greece, Egypt and Cyprus, which said the agreement infringed on their economic rights in the Mediterranean. The EU said the deal was a violation of international law that threatened regional stability.

At the heart of the issue is how a country’s continental shelf is calculated and whether islands should be included in the calculation. Turkey argues they should not, a position that Greece says violates international law.

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Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed.