US cools Aegean islands clash

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The Independent Online
A four-day confrontation between Turkey and Greece, both Nato members, over ownership of an outcrop of rocks in the Aegean Sea was brought to a peaceful end yesterday by the telephone diplomacy of the American trouble-shooter Richard Holbrooke.

Telephoning repeatedly from Washington, he turned his negotiating skills from Bosnia to the conflict over three barren football-pitch-sized Aegean islets.

Pressure to disengage was also put on both sides by President Bill Clinton and the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, the British Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, and the UN and Nato secretaries-general.

The crisis over the outcrops - known as Imia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish - ended in the early hours of yesterday. The only casualties were the three-man crew of a Greek helicopter, missing after it crashed.

Both sides agreed to remove their flags, pull back 20-odd warships, stop warplane sorties and withdraw troops. Greece sent nine soldiers to an island on Sunday, while Turkey landed 12 commandos on its neighbour yesterday.

Turkish leaders presented the commando action as the event that forced Greece to reconsider its position. After a night on the rocks, the Turkish troops stepped triumphantly off their inflatable attack craft to the cheers of local fishermen.

"There is no agreement as such. We were informed of the Greek intention to withdraw to the status quo ante,'' said the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman, Omer Akbel. "This was our original position, so we welcomed that. It's a victory for common sense." Turkey's caretaker Foreign Minister, Deniz Baykal, spoke of a victorious outcome, but the Greek and Turkish governments were attacked by their opponents at home for having given way.

The quarrel flared last week when a Greek television station showed an Orthodox priest leading a delegation on to the barren outcrop to plant the Greek flag. A Turkish media group then sent in a helicopter on Saturday with reporters who took down the blue and white Greek flag and raised a red and white star and crescent. Next day, the Greek navy arrived.

In Athens, the Greek Defence Minister, Gerassimos Arsenis, defended the withdrawal accord as the best possible course of action. "The fire-power was immense and any incident could have led to all-out war. We are returning to the status before the crisis," he said. But the conservative opposition demanded that the new Greek government of Costas Simitis resign. "The removal of Greek troops and the lowering of the Greek flag constitute an act of treason," Miltiadis Evert, leader of the New Democracy party, told parliament.

Mr Baykal said he hoped Greece would agree to sit down and negotiate over 1,000 rocky outcrops that dot the Aegean Sea between Greek islands and the Turkish mainland. Ankara thinks international law favours it over outcrops closer to the Turkish shore than the Greek mainland, like Imia/Kardak. Athens, however, says that the 1947 agreement under which Italy ceded the Dodecanese gives everything to Greece.