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F-16 crash heightens tension in Aegean

A Turkish F-16 military aircraft crashed into the Aegean yesterday after being intercepted by Greek fighters when it was allegedly violating Greece's airspace. The incident occurred at a time when the tense relationship between Turkey and Greece is beingsubjected to fresh strains over the Cyprus issue.

A Turkish military spokesman said the F-16 was on a training flight in international airspace and crashed off Rhodes because of a technical error. The pilot parachuted to safety and was taken by the Greek coastguard to a hospital on Rhodes.

Greek officials said the Turkish plane was one of four F-16s that had flown into Greek airspace. Two Greek Mirage F-1s were scrambled from a base in Crete to force the F-16s back to Turkey, but no shots were fired.

The Greek island of Rhodes is so close to the Turkish coast that Turkish planes flying in the area are often accused by the Greek authorities of violating Greek airspace. The two countries are also at odds over Greece's defence of its right to extend itsterritorial waters from six to 12 miles.

Turkey argues that this would turn the Aegean into a virtual Greek lake and could provoke a war, but Greece says it has no plans to exercise its right for the moment. Greece and Turkey came close to war in 1987 in a dispute over mineral rights in the Aegean.

Both Greece and Turkey are considering whether to accept a European Union proposal to form a customs union with Turkey in return for starting talks on full EU membership for Cyprus. The initiative, unveiled last Monday, envisages that negotiations would open six months after the end of an EU inter-governmental conference that will start next year and will probably last well into 1997.

Cyprus has been divided into Turkish and Greek sectors since 1974, when Turkish troops launched an invasion in response to a Greek attempt to unite the island with Greece. The Turkish sector proclaimed itself a separate state in 1983 but no country except Turkey recognises it. Consequently, the EU membership talks would be conducted with the Greek Cypriot government, although the EU wants Turkish Cypriot representatives to attend as well.

Turkey's Foreign Minister, Murat Karayalcin, said this week that he feared the EU's handling of Cyprus's membership bid would "block all prospects for a settlement of the dispute over Cyprus". Turkish Cypriot officials have suggested in the past that they would seek union with Turkey if the Greek Cypriots joined the EU, but the Turkish government is unenthusiastic about such plans, knowing they would torpedo the proposed customs union with the EU.

Greece has its own objections to the EU proposal. Government spokesmen say the deal made public last Monday is different from a plan agreed last month between Greece and France, which holds the rotating EU presidency.

The only difference to which the spokesmen have publicly referred concerns the financial aid to be given to Turkey under the customs-union agreement. But in Greece the Pasok socialist government of Andreas Papandreou has come under attack from oppositionparties for even considering the EU deal, and officials say the government will wait until 13 February before deciding whether to accept it.

The EU drew up its plan with the aim of prodding the two Cypriot communities into settling their differences. Anxious not to turn the Cyprus problem into an internal EU matter, the Union will not hurry to admit Cyprus as long as the island is divided into what are in effect two states.