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Turkey withdraws vessel from disputed waters to 'give diplomacy a chance': Erdogan

Turkey's natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean has been at the centre of a row between Ankara and Athens
Tensions between Turkey and Greece flared when Ankara sent exploration vessel Oruc Reis to disputed waters on 10 August
Tensions between Turkey and Greece flared when Ankara sent exploration vessel Oruc Reis to disputed waters on 10 August (AFP)

Turkey has recalled its natural gas exploration vessel from the disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters to allow room for diplomacy with Greece, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said on Friday.

However, he was quick to add that Turkey's work in the region was not finished.

"Let's give diplomacy a chance, let's put forth a positive approach for diplomacy. Greece should also positively meet this approach of ours, and let's take a step accordingly," Erdogan said in Istanbul after Friday prayers. "This is why we did it."

Both Turkey and Greece claim areas of the Eastern Mediterranean, where experts believe there are vast, untapped hydrocarbon resources.

The two sides bitterly disagree over the maritime jurisdiction and energy exploration rights in the waters.

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Tensions between the two countries were reignited when Turkey sent its Oruc Reis research vessel to disputed waters near a Greek island on 10 August.

Turkey extended the mission multiple times, despite repeated calls from the European Union and Greece to stop.

On Sunday, the Oruc Reis returned to Antalya port for what Ankara called routine maintenance, a move Greece said was a positive first step in easing tensions.

Erdogan said the vessel would return to the contested waters once it was ready.

"But this does not mean that, because Oruc Reis was pulled back for maintenance, our seismic activities will fully stop," he told reporters. "Once the maintenance period is finished, Oruc Reis will go back to its operations again and continue its work there."

Technical talks

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that maintenance work on Oruc Reis may take "a few weeks".

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Sunday welcomed the move.

"If there are steps towards this direction, Greece is ready to start a new cycle of exploratory contacts with Turkey," he said in a press conference.

Officials from both sides are holding technical talks at Nato to avoid military accidents between their navies, after a minor collision of warships last month.

Turkey has accused Greece of slowing down discussions by imposing pre-conditions.

Greece has said that they can only move ahead with talks if Ankara stops its threats.

Last week, at an informal summit for Mediterranean states hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, leaders warned that the European Union was ready to consider further sanctions if Turkey did not halt its "unilateral activities" in the Eastern Mediterranean.

EU leaders plan to evaluate possible sanctions against Turkey at a summit later this month.