May 23, 2006

Greek, Turkish jets collide in disputed area

By Karolos Grohmann

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek and Turkish F-16 fighters collided
on Tuesday while shadowing each other over the southern Aegean,
where the two NATO allies have long disputed control over

Greece and Turkey, which have come to the brink of war in
the past over territorial disputes in the region, gave starkly
differing accounts of the crash. But both hurried to limit
damage to ties that have warmed markedly in the last six years.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry said it had "learned with sadness
that the Greek pilot lost his life." Athens announced search
and rescue efforts were continuing and that he would be
considered missing for at least 72 hours before being declared

Greece said the Turkish pilot, flying one of three Turkish
planes involved in the incident, had been rescued by a foreign
commercial vessel and was later picked up by a Turkish military
helicopter after refusing to board a Greek rescue helicopter.

The calm tone of exchanges, contrasting with the bitter
rhetoric of the past, highlighted a dramatic improvement in
ties between the two long-time rivals.

"Our main concern was not to escalate this into a crisis,"
a senior Greek defense ministry official told reporters.

But analysts said despite efforts from both sides to play
down the incident, this echo of past enmity could hamper
further progress.

Turkey said the crash was caused by a Greek fighter
interfering in Turkish maneuvers in international airspace.

Greece said two Greek fighters were scrambled after two
Turkish F-16s and an RF-4 jet violated the Athens "flight
information region," an area reaching out over the Aegean,
heading toward the Greek island of Crete.

The collision occurred at about 27,000 feet, some 21 miles
southeast of the island of Karpathos, whose mayor, Michalis
Ioannidis, told Greek television islanders had heard an
explosion but saw nothing.


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 and 1963.

Ties have warmed in the last six years, with Greece backing
Turkey's drive to join the European Union. Public opinion in
both countries is however volatile.

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

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.

(Additional reporting by the Ankara bureau)