Turkish research ship at the centre of drilling row with Greece set to return to Mediterranean

Turkey will redeploy a research ship at the centre of a row over exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish navy announced on Sunday in a move that could reignite tensions with neighbour Greece.

The ship Oruc Reis will operate “from 12 to 20 October” in the same region it was exploring in August and September, including the area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, according to the message sent by the maritime alert system NAVTEX.

Tensions flared between Athens and Ankara from August 10 to mid-September following the deployment by Turkey of the seismic research vessel, which was escorted by warships, to carry out explorations off this Greek island, 2 km from the Turkish coast, an area potentially rich in natural gas.

Greece claims sovereignty over the waters around Kastellorizo, but Turkey rejects this, insisting that it has more extensive rights in the eastern Mediterranean because of its longer coastline.

Ankara began by deploying the Oruc Reis and military ships to the disputed waters on August 10 and extended their mission, ignoring repeated calls from the European Union and Athens to desist.

The ship will be joined on the next “seismic sounding” mission by two other ships named Ataman and Cengiz Han, according to NAVTEX.

The Oruc Reis had returned to the Turkish coast last month, while in waters claimed by Greece, in what many hoped would be a sign of de-escalation to resolve the crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the withdrawal was intended to give diplomacy a chance.

Turkish leaders also explained that the ship would simply carry out planned maintenance, and that it would return to the eastern Mediterranean to continue its work.

But there was hope that tensions could be diffused when Ankara and Athens agreed to hold negotiations last month, partly as a result of German-led diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.

The talks had been delayed since 2016 and were supposed to resume in Istanbul but no date had ever been given.

The highest level of exchanges since the row began took place last week when Turkish and Greek foreign ministers met on the margins of a security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia.

At a summit earlier this month, the EU threatened Ankara with sanctions if Turkey fails to halt energy exploration in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Turkey had described the threat as “non-constructive,” but its latest decision will add tension to relations between Ankara and Brussels.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is due to visit Ankara on Wednesday, according to Turkish state media TRT, for a meeting during which the Eastern Mediterranean issue will take centre stage.

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