Greek flag row gets Turkish goat

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No better symbol of the pettiness of Turkish-Greek conflicts could have presented itself than a barren group of rocky islands in the Aegean, which has abruptly become the object of a "war of the flags" between the two countries.

The fuss started on 26 December when a Turkish coaster ran aground on the guano-covered archipelago, known as Imia in Greek or Kardak in Turkish. The islands - whose only inhabitants are goats - are about halfway between the Greek island of Kalymnos and Turkey's Bodrum peninsula, a magnet for British tourists.

The coaster's captain initially refused to be towed off by expensive Greek tugs. The two foreign ministries exchanged notes. And that should have been an end to it.

But the mass media of the two countries had scented a story. Right-wing Greek media, possibly keen on a situation that could embarrass the new socialist government, highlighted the mayor of Kalymnos's decision to assert Greek sovereignty by driving a stake into the rocks and tying a Greek flag to it.

A conservative Turkish media group that is often quick to attack Greece responded on Saturday, flying a journalist to the rock by helicopter, ripping down the Hellenic stripes and running up the star and crescent.

By Sunday, it was the Greek navy that had sailed in to put the Greek flag up again. Turkish coastguard cutters moved up. Ambassadors were summoned in capitals and the allies of the fractious Nato members were informed. "This is the kind of dispute that only a Turk or a Greek can understand," said a foreign diplomat in Ankara. "The rest of the world can only throw up its hands in disbelief."

Athens claims it was given Imia in 1948 when Italy ceded the south-east Aegean islands known as the Dodecanese to Greece. Italy had taken them from the Turks in 1912. The legal position of the outcrops is debatable - they are probably Greece's by treaty obligation, possibly Turkey's if international laws were applied - and the atmosphere may be ripe for escalation.

A Greek spokesman laughed at such talk and blamed the media for exaggerating the story. He suggested that the most sensible way to resolve the dispute would be to have a referendum among the goats.