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Greece ready for talks with Turkey if "encouraging step" is pursued

15 Sep 2020 / 22:15 H.

    * Withdrawal of survey ship is "first encouraging step"-Greece

    * Turkish official says ship could stay in port longer

    * EU leaders could discuss sanctions on Turkey next week

    By Angeliki Koutantou and Orhan Coskun

    ATHENS/ANKARA, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Greece said on Tuesday it was ready for talks with Turkey over contested Mediterranean waters if Ankara continues "disengaging itself" from the crisis, following the withdrawal of a Turkish exploration vessel from a disputed region.

    The long-running dispute between the two NATO members flared last month when Turkey sent a ship, the Oruc Reis, to survey waters claimed by Greece. Greek and Turkish warships shadowing the boat collided, highlighting the potential for military escalation. The European Union said Ankara could face sanctions.

    On Sunday, less than two weeks before EU leaders discuss the crisis, the Oruc Reis returned to port. Turkey said it would resume work after regular maintenance, but a senior Turkish official said it could stay longer to give diplomacy a chance.

    "Turkey still has time - ahead of and after the (EU) summit - to continue the first encouraging step of disengaging itself from this crisis," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after talks with EU Council President Charles Michel in Athens.

    "If we have tangible proof and this (proof) is continued, we are ready to start immediately - I stress that, immediately - exploratory talks with Turkey regarding our only major dispute: the demarcation of maritime zones" in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, he said.

    The two countries had been on the verge of resuming talks last month, following mediation by Germany, but Turkey broke off contact after Greece and Egypt signed a deal which Ankara said violated its own claims.

    Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, has continued its diplomatic efforts, according to the Turkish official who spoke on condition of anonymity, and Turkey wanted to give those efforts a chance of success.

    Maintenance work on the Oruc Reis could be finished in a week, allowing it to return to the disputed area, "but it can remain docked longer to reduce tensions in the region and allow for diplomacy", the official said.

    He said Turkey wanted to give an opportunity for EU foreign ministers, who meet on Monday, ahead of the Sept 24-25 leaders' summit, to take steps towards easing the crisis.

    "Greek officials have also made statements softening the atmosphere. These are positive. We need to take steps forward for the solution of the problem now, without... pre-conditions."

    Greek and Turkish military officials were holding separate "de-confliction" talks at NATO headquarters on Tuesday. The meeting was one of a series of contacts aimed at preventing any incident at sea spilling over into open conflict, but was not expected to address the actual disputes.

    Despite calling Oruc Reis back to port, Turkey still has a drilling ship and a seismic survey vessel operating in waters claimed by Cyprus, which is demanding EU sanctions on Ankara. (Writing by Dominic Evans Editing by Gareth Jones)

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