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NATO says Turkey, Greece agree to talks; Athens denies deal

By SUZAN FRASER and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS Associated Press
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — NATO’s chief said Thursday that alliance members Greece and Turkey have agreed to start “technical talks” to help reduce the risks of military accidents in the eastern Mediterranean, where the two are locked in a tense standoff over offshore energy rights. 
But an official in Athens quickly denied any such agreement, saying Turkey must first withdraw its ships from the area where it’s carrying out drilling research. There was no immediate reaction from Ankara.
Relations between the historic regional rivals have hit their worst point in 46 years — when their militaries briefly fought in Cyprus — after Ankara sent a research vessel, escorted by warships, in July into waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus. Turkey says it has every right to prospect there. 
Greece placed its armed forces on alert and sent its own warships to the area, between the island of Crete, Cyprus and Turkey’s southern coast, while simulated dogfights between the two countries’ fighter pilots have multiplied over the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the possible diplomatic opening in a statement on the military alliance’s website Thursday, the same day that Turkey announced that Russia plans to conduct live-fire naval exercises this month in the eastern Mediterranean . 
“Greece and Turkey are valued Allies, and NATO is an important platform for consultations on all issues that affect our shared security,” the statement read. “I remain in close touch with all concerned Allies to find a solution to the tensions in the spirit of NATO solidarity.”
A Greek official told The Associated Press that talk of an agreement “does not correspond with reality.”
“In any case, we have noted the NATO Secretary-General’s intention to work to create mechanisms for de-escalation within the framework of NATO,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to comment on the record. 
“Nevertheless, de-escalation would only be achieved with the immediate withdrawal of all Turkish ships from the Greek continental shelf,” he said, referring to an area of the seabed extending away from Greek sovereign territory.
Germany has already launched a diplomatic effort for Ankara and Athens to engage in talks. Both insist they want to talk, but each on its own terms.
It’s rare for members of NATO to require “de-confliction mechanisms” to avoid collisions or exchanges of fire. While often at loggerheads, the alliance has often urged Russia to continue to use military dialogue to avoid “incidents and accidents,” mostly between warplanes or ships.
Still, it’s not the first time that Turkey has appeared close to a confrontation with one of its allies.
On June 10, the French frigate Courbet was illuminated by the targeting radar of a Turkish warship that was escorting a Tanzanian-flagged cargo vessel. The French navy, acting on NATO intelligence, suspected the cargo ship was violating the arms embargo on Libya.
Turkish officials said a NATO probe into the incident was “inconclusive.” NATO has not made its findings public. 
Earlier, Turkey announced the Russian exercises in a navigational notice that said they would take place Sept. 8-22 and Sept. 17-25 in areas where the Turkish energy exploration is being carried out. 
Greek and Turkish armed forces held their own exercises in the area last month. 
There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the exercises, which Turkey announced after the United States said it was partially lifting a 33-year-old arms embargo against ethnically divided Cyprus. 
In Athens, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the planned Russian exercises were being “monitored by all the countries in the region, as well as our NATO allies and European Union partners.”
It’s unclear why NATO-member Turkey announced such drills on Russia’s behalf, but the two countries have in recent years significantly strengthened their military, political and economic ties. They are coordinating closely on their military presence in Syria, while Turkey has purchased Russia’s advanced S-400 missiles and has broken ground on a Russian-built nuclear power plant on its southern coast. 
Russia maintains a sizable naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and regularly conducts naval maneuvers there. 
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone on Thursday. Germany currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency and has been trying to informally mediate the offshore prospecting dispute.
The European Union has threatened sanctions against Turkey to force it to end its exploration activities in the area. The 27-member group said it plans to blacklist Turkish officials linked to the energy exploration.
A statement from Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader wants an arrangement in which resources are shared “fairly” and complained that Greece, Cyprus and countries backing the two were the ones escalating tensions.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Thursday took aim at France, which joined Greece and Cyprus for military exercises in the region, accusing it of “bullying, making claims and playing the role of a guardian angel.”
Greece is reportedly considering a major arms purchase from France that would include around 20 Rafale fighter jets and two frigates.
Greece and Turkey, who are divided on a slew of issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean, have come to the brink of war three times since the 1970s. In 1974, Turkey invaded and occupied a third of Cyprus following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The resulting, breakaway Turkish-Cypriot north of the island is only recognized by Turkey.