May 23, 2006

Greek, Turkish jets collide in interception moves

By Karolos Grohmann

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek and Turkish F-16 fighter jets
collided in mid-air on Tuesday while shadowing each other in
the southern Aegean, where the two NATO allies have long
disputed control over airspace.

The exact circumstances of how the two planes crashed, in
an area where aircraft of the two age-old rivals frequently
harass each other in close maneuvers, were not immediately

The Turkish military said the crash was caused by a Greek
fighter interfering in Turkish maneuvers in international
airspace. Greece, however, said the collision occurred during
"interception maneuvers" above the Greek island of Karpathos.

Karpathos mayor Michalis Ioannidis told Greek television
islanders had heard an explosion but seen nothing.

A Greek frigate was ordered to sail toward Karpathos, close
to popular tourist spots of Rhodes and the Turkish coast, to
take part in the search and rescue operation. Turkish vessels
were also scrambled.

Greek officials said the Turkish pilot had been rescued by
a foreign commercial vessel and was picked up by a Turkish
military helicopter after refusing to board a Greek rescue
helicopter. There was no immediate word of the Greek flyer.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul called his Greek
counterpart Dora Bakoyanni, who is visiting Helsinki, the Greek
Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"The two foreign ministers expressed their regret for
today's incident and agreed that this should not affect the two
countries' efforts to improve their relations," it said.

Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said the Turkish and
Greek military commanders had immediately contacted each other
over the incident, the apparent fruit of confidence-building
measures agreed last year to stop such incidents escalating.


The countries came close to war as recently as 1996 over a
deserted Aegean outcrop and before that over the Mediterranean
island of Cyprus in 1974.

Ties have warmed in the last six years, with Greece backing
Turkey's drive to join the European Union, but tensions remain
over the territorial issues and analysts said incidents such as
the collision are sure to sour relations.

"This incident will not do any good," Thanos Veremis of the
Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
think tank, told Reuters. "I think it will increase Greek

He said Greeks feel their moderation toward Turkey in
recent years is not being reciprocated, with no major moves
from Ankara on pending issues, including the Cyprus division.

A solution of territorial and air sovereignty disputes also
eludes both countries.

Greece claims a 10-mile zone around its coast, but Turkey
recognizes only a six-mile zone. Turkey says it has the right
to train in international airspace.

Athens says it daily scrambles fighters to intercept
Turkish aircraft invading the airspace of its islands. Turkey
denies the flights are a violation of Greek territory, saying
it only flies in international airspace.

These maneuvers, called "mock dogfights," can often involve
very close high-speed approaches from both sides and draw
formal protests from Ankara and Athens.

In January 1996, Greece and Turkey were involved in a tense
stand-off over ownership of a rocky outcrop. The two countries
stepped back from war after the United States, fearing conflict
within the NATO alliance, mediated a settlement.