Greece, Turkey Ease Tensions in Aegean Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Greece and Turkey backed away Saturday from a threatened confrontation over oil drilling in disputed waters of the Aegean Sea.

Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou described himself as "restrainedly optimistic" that the crisis between the two countries had passed after Turkey said it was canceling plans to send an oil research ship into parts of the Aegean where both counties claim mineral rights.

At the same time, the American Embassy here issued a statement saying that Greece had withdrawn its demand, made Friday night, that the United States suspend operations at the Nea Makri communications base on the Greek mainland near Marathon Bay, 22 miles east of Athens.

Request Withdrawn

"The government of Greece has withdrawn its request for the Nea Makri base to be closed," an embassy spokesman said late Saturday.

The Greeks had invoked provisions of a 1983 treaty governing use of the base to ask that the Americans suspend operations there on grounds of Greek national security.

The Athens government said it feared that the base would be used in conjunction with a similar communications link in Izmir, Turkey, compromising Greek security over the looming confrontation.

Western political observers here, however, regarded the Greek move as a thinly disguised effort to apply pressure on Turkey through the United States.

NATO Mediation Offered

In Washington, State Department spokesman Bruce Ammerman said the United States is "pleased" that Greece had rescinded its call for the U.S. Navy to suspend operations at Nea Makri.

Ammerman added that Washington has been informed that Turkey has accepted an offer by Lord Carrington, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to mediate the dispute between Greece and Turkey, both NATO members. Greece has not yet indicated whether it will accept Carrington's proposal.

"We hope that both allies will take advantage" of Carrington's mediation, Ammerman said.

Here in Greece, a spokesman at the base said it had never stopped functioning, while Greek and American officials conferred throughout the night.

Saber-Rattling Headlines

Although the dispute involves an arcane matter of territorial jurisdiction, it had threatened to blow up into a major confrontation between Greece and Turkey, both allies of the United States along NATO's southern tier.

Newspapers in Greece carried saber-rattling headlines on Saturday. "On the Brink of Aegean War," one banner headline read. The flare-up prompted Greeks to stockpile canned goods and hoard other commodities in the apparent expectation of military conflict.

Turkey had reacted sharply to plans of a Greek-based international consortium, North Aegean Petroleum Co., to seek oil in international waters of the Aegean Sea, east of Thasos island. Ankara threatened to send its own oil exploration vessel, the Sismik-1, under naval escort into the Aegean near islands where Greece claims mineral rights in the continental shelf.

Turkey warned that it would consider interference with its ship to be an act of war and placed its powerful armed forces on alert, a step short of mobilization.

Crisis Defused

The crisis was defused Friday night when Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal said that the Turkish vessel would not move into the disputed waters unless Greek vessels did so first. And on Saturday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it understood that Athens would adhere to a 1976 agreement reached in Bern, Switzerland, under which both countries pledged to avoid provocative acts in the Aegean.

"As long as Greece adheres to the Bern agreement and refrains from oil exploration outside of its territorial waters, Turkey will also comply with this agreement," the statement said.

Ankara said it had received assurances from North Aegean Petroleum that it would not seek oil in international waters, and the Turkish vessel, Sismik-1, was reported to be operating in clearly defined Turkish territorial waters late Saturday.

Papandreou met Saturday with Greek political party leaders, telling reporters afterward: "I can repeat the phrase restrainedly optimistic, but I have nothing else to say."

Military Remained on Alert

The Greek military remained on alert Saturday, and air force and naval units patrolled the northeastern Aegean sea, the Associated Press reported.

While Greece and Turkey have been in open confrontation since Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974, following a Greek-sponsored coup, the current crisis threatened to seriously disrupt U.S. diplomacy in the region.

Papandreou had explicitly warned that the oil exploration controversy would be linked to talks due about the future of U.S. military bases in Greece after the current lease expires in December, 1988.

These talks have not yet begun despite a year-old agreement between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Papandreou to get them started well before the deadline.

U.S. officials say Washington is prepared to begin negotiations at once, but the Greeks have been dragging their feet.

U.S. Bases in Doubt

Papandreou made removal of the bases a key campaign promise in 1981 when he was first elected prime minister, but he relented in 1983 and agreed to a five-year extension of the lease. At that time, he said the pact would not be renewed again, but he later said he would be willing to consider a new extension provided terms were favorable.

Shultz said following a meeting on March 27, 1986, with Papandreou in Athens that the two sides agreed "that serious discussions of the question would take place in time to permit the early resolution of the question well prior to December, 1988."

The United States maintains four major air and naval bases in Greece, two near Athens and two on Crete, along with a number of smaller facilities.

Washington never agrees to pay rent for overseas bases. However, the base agreements with Greece and a number of other countries call for the Administration to make its "best effort" to obtain from Congress military aid for the host government. Recently, the Administration has fallen behind its promises to Greece and most other countries because of cuts in the foreign aid budget.

Could Disrupt Alliance

Meantime, the Greek prime minister has warned that the current confrontation with Turkey could further disrupt the NATO alliance. Greece already refuses to take part in NATO military maneuvers, saying it will continue to shun them as long as Turkish forces remain in Cyprus.

After the flare-up, Lord Carrington called a meeting of NATO ambassadors to urge both sides to show restraint and to offer his good offices to try to resolve the dispute.

Times staff writer Norman Kempster contributed to this story from Washington.

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