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Drama in the Med: Greek navy tries to stop cargo ship accompanied by Turkish frigates

Greek ships left the area once Turkey's ships sent a radio message saying that the cargo was protected by Ankara
A Turkish military ship near the Greek island of Lesbos (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Istanbul

A Greek navy helicopter attempted to stop and check a cargo ship accompanied by Turkish frigates in the Eastern Mediterenean early Wednesday, but retreated after a warning from Turkey's military.

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the incident wasn’t a close one and didn’t put any lives in danger.

“Greek ships left as soon as they saw the Turkish frigates,” the official told Middle East Eye. “They were miles away anyway.”

CNN Greece, which first reported the incident, said that a Greek frigate named “Spetsai” approached the Tanzanian-flagged Cirkin on suspicion of carrying weapons to Libya.

The report said the Greek ship was under the command of European IRINI operation, which was set up by the European Union last February to stop arms imports to Libya in accordance with the UN weapons embargo.

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“The Italian commander of the European force ordered the commander of the Greek frigate to take off [sic] a helicopter and control the ship,” the report said, adding that the ship was near Crete's southwest.

'Greek ships left as soon as they saw the Turkish frigates. They were miles away anyway'

- Turkish official

“As soon as the Greek helicopter approached Cirkin, it received a call from a Turkish frigate that sent the message that 'the Turkish ship is under the protection of the Turkish republic'.

After the radio message, the Italian commander ordered the Greek helicopter to return because IRINI doesn’t have authorisation to intervene with vessels accompanied by ships belonging to third countries, according to the report.

Greece and Turkey have competing interests in Libya due to their disagreements on the maritime boundaries in the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey earlier this year signed a maritime delimitation deal with the UN-recognised Tripoli government that disrupted Greek plans to import Israeli gas.

The Turkish official said that the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) had not condoned IRINI, and Malta, an EU member state, withdrew its forces from the operation last month.

“No one recognises this so-called naval operation,” the official said.

Despite the UN weapons embargo, Turkey signed a military cooperation deal with the GNA and sent drones, armoured vehicles, Syrian mercenaries and military officers to support the government against the forces of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar.

The support changed the balance on the ground, with Haftar's Libyan National Army retreating from the west of the country after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Tripoli.

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