ATHENS - Greece has lodged a stiff demarche with Turkey claiming Turkish officials ordered fighter jets to buzz a military helicopter carrying Greece’s defense minister over the Aegean sea. Turkey denies the accusation, saying Greece — in the words of Turkish officials — is over dramatizing what Ankara says are routine flights in the region.
The government in Athens is concerned that a fresh standoff in the Aegean could scare travelers who are starting to make vacation plans to the Greek islands once the coronavirus emergency ends.
Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Greece was ready to resist any Turkish provocation.
He said harassment of the Greek defense minister’s plane by a group of Turkish warplanes over the Aegean Sea was indicative of what he called Turkey’s practice of breaching good neighbor relations and international rules.
Greece and Turkey have had a long history of testy relations, each challenging the other’s claims to air, sea and land rights in the Aegean Sea that divides them.
The two NATO allies have come to the brink of war three times in the last 30 years. Athens most recently accused Ankara of orchestrating an invasion, a term Greek officials use to describe Turkey’s decision to allow and encourage tens of thousands of migrants who had been trapped in Turkey to push their way into Greece and the heart of Europe.
Officials tell VOA Turkish warplanes came within 400 meters of the defense minister’s military helicopter as he was travelling to inspect observation points on remote islands in the Aegean.
Officials say the jets were quickly intercepted by Greek warplanes. But then, the officials said another sortie of Turkish firefighters continued to do dangerous maneuvers over the Aegean. Since then, 20 more aerial confrontations have followed despite Greece’s protest to Turkey.
Officials in Ankara deny there has been any harassment. They say Turkish airplanes were merely conducting routine flights and accused Athens of exaggerating.
It is not the first time Greek and Turkish warplanes have faced off over the Aegean. But tensions between the two countries have soared dramatically since Turkey’s bid to push more than 150,000 migrants into Greece. And now, officials here fear a new standoff, either in the sea, land or air that separates the two age-old rivals.
In the last few days, authorities here captured video of the Turkish coast guard pushing migrant vessels to Greece, increasing refugee flows to a country already inundated with more than 100,000 asylum seekers.
Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos says it would be a false illusion or expectation for Greece to anticipate anything less from Turkey, especially after it has already made clear that will re-open its borders and allow migrants free access to Europe once it manages to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus in its country.
How long that will take remains unclear.
Greece has successfully managed its health crisis and is now easing restrictions nationwide. There is concern that any fresh standoff in the Aegean may spook travellers from making plans to visit Greece and its sun-kissed islands this summer.
Tourism is Greece’s biggest industry and the government here hopes to open the country up for business by July.