Greeks and Turks raise fears of war

Aegean disputes are alarming the West, reports Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
A steady deterioration in relations between Greece and Turkey is worrying Western governments, which fear that 1997 could be the year when long-simmering disputes in the eastern Mediterranean explode into war. Quarrels over territorial issues in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus have intensified in recent months and have acquired a sharper edge because of an arms race that is gathering pace in the region.

Matters were not improved last week when Christos Rozakis, a deputy Greek foreign minister who advocated dialogue with Turkey, was obliged to resign. The official reason for his departure was ill health, but the Greek press said that his moderate approach to Turkey had brought him into conflict with Theodoros Pangalos, the strong-minded Foreign Minister.

The rise in tensions is threatening to peak almost one year to the day that Greece and Turkey nearly went to war over the disputed ownership of a rocky islet in the Aegean. It was the second serious war scare in a decade, following a confrontation over mineral rights in the Aegean in 1987.

Despite the fact that Greece and Turkey are Nato allies and have not fought a war since the early 1920s, diplomats caution that this is no time for complacency. Costas Simitis, the Greek Prime Minister for the past year, appears to have abandoned hopes of making a fresh start to Greek-Turkish relations, while Turkey's Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, has deliberately distanced his country from its traditional Western allies. According to a high-ranking minister in one Nato government, the main source of tension continues to be possession of islands in the Aegean. "There is Greek concern that the Turks are raising claims to Greek islands in the Aegean. The Turks haven't explicitly said that they have or they haven't," he said.

Greece's Defence Minister, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, pulled no punches last Tuesday when he openly accused Turkey of planning a war in the Aegean. "From 1995 the Turkish armed forces have established as a national interest the change of borders in the Aegean Sea, and they are preparing militarily in this direction," he said.

From Turkey's point of view, Greece bears responsibility for the highly charged atmosphere because of its apparent efforts to alter the military balance in the eastern Mediterranean. First, Greece created a common air defence area with the Greek Cypriot-controlled south of Cyprus, and then it encouraged the Greek Cypriots to buy a Russian surface-to-air missile system.

Moreover, Mr Simitis announced a huge modernisation programme last November for the Greek armed forces, including plans to buy 400 tanks, 60 fighter- planes, two submarines, an unspecified number of helicopters and air-defence systems. It will cost 4,000bn drachmas (pounds 9.64bn) over the next 10 years.

The Russian missile deal for Cyprus aroused criticisms from the US and British governments, which say the island is already one of the most over- militarised places on earth. However, commentators in Greece accused the US and Britain of hypocrisy and of ignoring Turkey's support for a rogue Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus.

For its part, Turkey, which keeps 30,000 troops in the north, warned that it would not tolerate any changes to the regional military balance.

In an effort to calm the atmosphere, a senior US diplomat, Carey Cavanaugh, will visit Cyprus this weekend and urge a reduction in the number of troops along the line dividing the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sectors. He will also urge Greece and Turkey to limit military overflights of the island.