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US, Germany demand Turkey end 'provocation' against Greece

Turkey has angered Greece by sending back to contested waters the Oruc Reis seismic research vessel, seen here docked in 2019 in Istanbul
Turkey has angered Greece by sending back to contested waters the Oruc Reis seismic research vessel, seen here docked in 2019 in Istanbul Ozan KOSE AFP/File
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Washington (AFP)

Turkey's two key Western allies, the United States and Germany, on Tuesday urged it to pull back a ship it has returned to waters contested with Greece, with Washington denouncing the "calculated provocation."

The Turkish navy said Sunday that the Oruc Reis exploration vessel was heading back to energy-rich eastern Mediterranean waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus, weeks after it left amid an agreement for talks.

In a strongly worded statement, the State Department said the US "deplores" the decision by Turkey and noted that Greece "asserts jurisdiction" over areas where the ship plans to operate through October 22.

"We urge Turkey to end this calculated provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

"Turkey's announcement unilaterally raises tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between our NATO allies Greece and Turkey," she said.

"Coercion, threats, intimidation and military activity will not resolve tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean."

Turkey last sent the ship into contested waters in August backed by warships, alarming both Greece and Cyprus, which is partially occupied by Ankara.

Greece responded by staging military exercises but tensions eased when both Ankara and Athens agreed to talk through the crisis.

Greece said Tuesday there could be no diplomatic solution until the ship is withdrawn.

Greece "will not sit at the table for exploratory talks while the Oruc Reis and escorting warships are out there," Minister of State George Gerapetritis told Parapolitika radio.

He said Athens would "emphatically" raise the dispute at a European council meeting starting Thursday.

- Germany steps up tone -

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month said that the withdrawal of the ship was a chance to give diplomacy a chance.

But Turkish officials also insisted the ship was only undergoing planned maintenance and would return to the eastern Mediterranean to continue its work.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaking ahead of a trip to Cyprus and Greece, said that Turkey "must end the cycle of detente and provocation if the government is interested in talks."

"If there should be renewed Turkish gas exploration in the more controversial sea areas in the eastern Mediterranean, this would be a serious setback for efforts to de-escalate," Maas said.

While France has staunchly backed Greece throughout the standoff with Turkey, Germany had irked many Greeks in August with what they perceived as a low-key response by Europe's largest economic power.

Erdogan has a cordial relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has worked with Turkey both on stemming the flow of Syrian and other refugees into Europe and over the crisis in Libya.

Erdogan has also cultivated close ties with US President Donald Trump, who said of the Turkish leader in an interview for investigative journalist Bob Woodward's latest book: "The tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them."

The US relationship has nonetheless been expanding quickly with Athens, in part over its growing embrace of US ally Israel.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month visited Greece in a show of support in which he voiced hope over then easing tensions with Turkey.

Under Erdogan, Turkey has been newly assertive on multiple fronts, not just against historic rival Greece.

Erdogan in recent weeks has encouraged Azerbaijan in its campaign to end "occupation" of the Nagorno-Karabakh area by Armenia as the neighbors engage in their most serious fighting since 1994.

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