France said Thursday it was “temporarily reinforcing” its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea amid tensions between neighbors Greece and Turkey over recently-discovered gas reserves.
The French military said two Rafale jets would arrive Thursday on the island of Crete for a stay of “several days,” after having taken part in a military exercise in Cyprus earlier in the week.
The assault helicopter carrier Tonnerre (Thunder), en route to deliver aid to Beirut after last week’s deadly port explosion there, was joined overnight by the La Fayette frigate, previously deployed to Cyprus, and they took part in an exercise with the Greek navy.
“The purpose of this military presence is to strengthen the autonomous assessment of the situation and to affirm France’s commitment to free movement, to the security of maritime navigation in the Mediterranean and respect for international law,” said a ministry statement.
Relations between France and Turkey have been icy as President Emmanuel Macron has accused Ankara of violating the sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus — claims Turkey rejects.
Turkey is at odds with Greece and the European Union over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean amid a scramble for resources following the discovery of huge gas reserves in recent years.
Last month, Greece announced it had deployed ships in the Aegean in “heightened readiness” after Turkey announced plans for energy exploration near a Greek island in an area it claims is within Turkey’s continental shelf.
Then on Monday, Ankara dispatched the research ship Oruc Reis, accompanied by naval vessels, off the Greek island of Kastellorizo.
ℹ️ INFO IN ONE VIDEO
MTA Oruç Reis, which conducted seismic research in the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, continues its activities in the Mediterranean. 🇹🇷 pic.twitter.com/ZgoFYbj3R4
— Turkey Info (@TurkeyInfo) August 11, 2020
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias urged Ankara to “immediately” remove the Oruc Reis from Greek waters and Greece deployed warships to monitor the vessel.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Wednesday he hoped sense would prevail and dialogue resume, warning: “The risk of an accident lurks when so many military assets are gathered in such a contained area.”
France, Turkey, and Greece are members of the NATO military alliance, but Macron has been critical of Turkey also over its involvement in the Libyan conflict.
Tensions have risen over the last year between Macron and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, notably when the French leader said the lack of NATO response to a unilateral Turkish operation in northern Syria showed the alliance was undergoing “brain death.”
The strain worsened in June when France denounced an “extremely aggressive” intervention by Turkish ships against a French navy vessel participating in a NATO mission in the Mediterranean, a claim Ankara dismissed as “groundless.”