Turkey downplays survey ship pull-out, to continue escalation

Under international pressure, Turkey’s research ship Oruç Reis, at the centre of a tense row with Greece, returned to waters near the southern province of Antalya on Sunday. But Turkish officials are downplaying the significance of the move, calling it “routine maintenance,” and say the ship will soon resume its activities.

The Oruç Reis seismic survey ship has been unsettling the strategic Eastern Mediterranean region since Turkey sent it along with a small navy flotilla into disputed seas on August 10. Greece responded by staging navy drills with France and several EU allies near ones Turkey was holding last month.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday the ship pulled back to shore to resupply but that its survey of hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean will continue.

He said the Oruç Reis had docked at the southern port of Antalya for maintenance and resupply after weeks at sea. Çavuşoğlu told private broadcaster NTV that this was incorrectly interpreted as a “retreat” because a new Navtex, or international maritime safety advisory, was not issued. “There is no point to publish a Navtex when the Oruç Reis is in maintenance,” he said.

Turkey’s energy ministry, in a statement on Twitter, said the ship’s return was “routine” for monthly maintenance and personnel changes. The research vessel has so far gathered 3,525 kilometers of seismic data, according to the ministry.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday that the return of the seismic research vessel Oruç Reis to near the country’s southern shores does not mean Ankara has given up on its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Speaking to the state-owned Anadolu news agency about activities of Turkey’s Oruç Reis ship in the Mediterranean, Akar underlined that there will be back and forth movements as per the plan, stressing, “It is not possible to abandon Turkey’s rights there.”

Turkish survey vessels and drill ships are prospecting for oil and gas in waters where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights.

The escalating row has prompted Germany try to mediate a solution and NATO to host consultations aimed at preventing the two alliance members from accidentally going to war — as they almost did over a few contested islands in 1996.

The EU says it fully supports member states Greece and Cyprus in their dispute with Turkey and has said it is drawing up potential sanctions if dialogue does not begin. The bloc’s leaders could make a decision at a summit on September 24-25.

Çavuşoğlu said he did not expect EU leaders, who have already agreed to modest sanctions against Turkey, to take further steps next week, but such measures could not be ruled out.

Greek officials on Sunday welcomed the survey ship’s return to port.

Çavuşoğlu and Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said research ships Barbaros Hayreddin, currently sailing east of Cyprus, and Yavuz, in waters south-west of Cyprus, are continuing their work.

Turkey will also send a second drill ship to operate in the Black Sea, Donmez said on Sunday, weeks after Ankara announced its largest ever natural gas discovery in the area.

“Our drill ship Kanuni, whose preparation work is continuing, will start drilling in the Black Sea,” he said on Twitter.

Donmez added that Kanuni will support the Fatih drill ship, which Turkey says found a 320 billion cubic metre natural gas field some 100 nautical miles north of the Turkish coast.