Navies square up in 'flag war' over Aegean islets

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Grey frigates, sleek coastguard cutters and roaring warplanes yesterday circled a small rocky outcrop in the Aegean Sea that an increasingly strident Greece and Turkey were still each claiming as its own.

More telling, perhaps, were the boatloads of journalists and helicopters with camera crews, since this latest Greek-Turkish crisis appears to be as much a product of media hysteria as any insecure nationalist posturing by the new government in Greece or the caretaker administration in Turkey.

After a freelance "war of the flags" last weekend between the two countries asserting their sovereignty to the islets, known as Imia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish, a new dimension was added on Monday when Greece landed uniformed men with rifles.

"They must pull down their flags, withdraw their soldiers and we must sit down and talk about the future of these islands," the Turkish Foreign Minister, Deniz Baykal, said.

In Athens, the Defence Minister, Gerassimos Arsenis, said Turkey was sending more frigates to the Aegean andGreece would match their numbers. "It is a very delicate situation," Mr Arsenis said, adding that he had talked twice on the telephone with the US Defense Secretary, William Perry

Mr Baykal said the ownership of about 1,000 rocks in the sea had been left "unclear" after the Dodecanese archipelago in the south-east Aegean was ceded to Greece by Italy in 1947. Talks on these "outcrops" were started and then abandoned in 1953.

Although Turkish leaders, such as the caretaker Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, have started to insist that the outcrops are Turkish territory, the two countries seem to be aiming for a mutual agreement that neither should actually own them.

The outcrops, about half-way between the nearest Greek island and Turkey's Bodrum peninsula, are uninhabited except for occasional visits by picnickers on summer boat cruises. For decades, if not centuries, they have been peacefully used by both sides. The Greeks say they have had unrestricted access for the long-haired black goats that can be seen fleeing the downwash from helicopter rotors. Boats from the Turkish mainland fish the seas all around.

"There was never any objection, nor any problem with ships using the islands as a transit route," Mr Baykal said, adding that the United States was putting pressure on its two Nato allies to stop their row. Russia, which has historically close ties with Greece, "could not but be worried about the situation", a foreign ministry spokesman said in Moscow.