Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis, which has been at the heart of a simmering standoff between Greece and Turkey over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, has returned to a port in southern Turkey, a ship tracker shows.
On Sunday, Refinitiv ship tracking data showed that the Turkish government has returned Oruc Reis, along with two accompanying vessels, to waters near the southern province of Antalya, a move that was hailed by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as a first positive step taken to defuse the growing tension.
“The return of Oruc Reis is a positive first step. I hope there will be continuity. We want to talk with Turkey but in a climate without provocations,” Mitsotakis said in a press conference in Thessaloniki, a Greek port city on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea.
“The first step (by Turkey) will be the prologue of an improving situation in our bilateral relations,” he added.
Turkey and Greece, both of them NATO members, have been at loggerheads over hydrocarbon resources and naval influence in the eastern Mediterranean. For the past month, Ankara has sailed Oruc Reis – and warships to escort it – through an area in the sea that is disputed by Athens to map out possible oil and gas drilling prospects.
Greece, for its part, has ordered its naval vessels to shadow the Turkish ships. Earlier, one Greek and one Turkish naval vessel were even involved in a minor collision.
Member states of the European Union (EU), particularly France, fully support Greece in the current row and have threatened Ankara with imposing sanctions unless it takes the research vessel away from the contested waters.
Regarding the potential sanctions against Turkey, the Greek premier said that “a sanctions list exists as an option (against Turkey). Our desire is not to see it implemented but it will be done if we see that the other side is not returning to the path of logic.”
Mitsotakis had earlier stressed that dialog with Turkey over sea boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean is “important” provided that it is held on peaceful terms, not “at gunpoint.”
Ankara has time and again said that it is open to solving issues with neighboring Greece through dialog but has dismissed any pre-conditions, including the research vessel’s halting operations, ahead of talks.
According to an advisory issued by the Turkish navy earlier this month, the research vessel was scheduled to end its explorations in the area on Saturday.
However, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had earlier said that Oruc Reis would continue its exploratory operations for longer than the set period but no extension to the ship’s mission has so far been announced.
‘Return of Oruc Reis only part of scheduled operations’
Following the return of the seismic research vessel, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said that the return of Oruc Reis to near Turkey’s southern shores was only part of its scheduled operations.
In an interview with the state-owned Anadolu news agency, he stressed that the return does not mean Ankara has given up on its rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Akar also said that Greece should put aside its “provocative behavior” that raises tension in the region.
The Turkish defense minister also blamed Greece for violating international treaties by arming 18 Aegean islands, stressing that the provocative move only serves to “escalate tensions and sabotage dialogue.”
Turkey says it has the largest coastline among all other eastern Mediterranean nations but at the same time has a disproportionately small share of the sea because of Greece’s far-flung islands – a number of them even within sight of Turkey’s shore.
Greece argues that its claims to the waters are based on international law and also grounded in past agreements inked by neighboring Turkey.