Wednesday 3 November 2004

Air wars

Despite the agreement of the EU member states to start accession negotiations with Turkey, a tense situation still exists between Greece and Turkey over alleged airspace violations.

With serious violations reported in this Blog in early October, Greece, according to Associated Press, yesterday complained to the EU and NATO about further alleged violations of its Aegean Sea airspace by Turkish jet fighters.

The Greek National Defence General Staff claims that three Turkish F-16s allegedly violated air space near the island of Rhodes, in one case involving the harassment of a Greek army helicopter.

In Ankara, the deputy head of the Turkish military said his country had just resumed flights over the Aegean Sea that had been interrupted during the Aug. 13-29 Olympics.

"In the months of August and September, as proof of its good will toward the Olympic Games in Greece, Turkey had cancelled planned military manoeuvres and had reduced routine flights to a minimum level," Gen. Ilker Basbug said.

He disputed Greek claims that Turkey was violating Greek rights, and said the flights were "indispensable in line with its rights and interests in the Aegean."

"Greek claims that Turkey has increased flights in the Aegean don't reflect the truth, and there is no extraordinary activity," Basbug said, adding that "Greece's flights in the Aegean are far more than those of Turkey."

AP notes that long-standing disputes over airspace and territorial rights in the Aegean have nearly led to three wars between the two NATO allies since 1974, not least because Greece says its national airspace extends to 10 miles but Turkey recognises only 6 miles - the same distance as territorial waters.

One really does wonder how two long-standing belligerents like this can really sit down to talk about accession, and whether Turkey is really serious about wanting to come to terms with Greece.

A small but possibly important "straw in the wind" came two weeks ago when Turkey declined to buy Eurofighters, which would have brought it closer into the EU defence orbit, and instead chose to upgrade its fleet of US-built F16s.

At the very least, this suggests that Turkey, or perhaps the powerful military, is hedging its bets.