Nato talks launched to lower tensions between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean region have run into immediate trouble after officials in Athens denied they had agreed to join in. 

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, announced the negotiations late on Thursday but Greece said on Friday that it would not participate unless Turkey pulled naval ships out of all contested maritime areas first.

The spat highlights the escalating risk of conflict in the Mediterranean as longstanding territorial disputes between Turkey and its neighbours are intensified by the dash to exploit the region’s gas reserves. Ankara, which has welcomed Mr Stoltenberg’s announcement, criticised Athens for its apparent reluctance to participate in the Nato initiative.

Mr Stoltenberg had said on Thursday evening that, after discussions with Greek and Turkish leaders, the two Nato member states had “agreed to enter into technical talks” at the Brussels-based military alliance. These would aim to “establish mechanisms for military deconfliction to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean”, he added.

“Greece and Turkey are valued allies, and Nato is an important platform for consultations on all issues that affect our shared security,” he said. “I remain in close touch with all concerned allies to find a solution to the tensions in the spirit of Nato solidarity.”

But Greece has complained it is too early to start talks since no consensus had been reached on avoiding clashes in the Aegean.

“This move is very far from being an agreement to resume a dialogue,” Stelios Petsas, the Greek government spokesperson, told Greek television station Skai on Friday. “There remains the issue of the Turkish side de-escalating their position in a practical way.”

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Mr Stoltenberg told reporters on Friday that Greece and Turkey had “met already for technical talks here at Nato” at a military level. He said no mechanism had been agreed yet to “reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean”.

“These are technical talks, rather than negotiations on the underlying disputes between Greece and Turkey,” he added. 

Turkey, which was furious when Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt last month in the midst of German-brokered talks, has since said it would be willing to return to negotiations but only without preconditions.

Tensions escalated last month when Greek and Turkish frigates collided in disputed waters, damaging the Turkish vessel, which was guarding a Turkish seismic research ship. Athens has insisted it will not begin talks as long as Turkish navy ships remain in contested waters off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which lies 2km from the Turkish coast. 

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said Athens had “once again shown that it is not in favour of dialogue”.

Turkey has grown increasingly assertive in its search for gas in waters off Cyprus, whose northern part it occupied militarily in 1974 after a Greek-backed coup. Ankara also disputes Greece’s economic territorial claims based on the coastline of its islands not far from the Turkish coast. 

Rifts between Turkey and other Mediterranean nations have been exacerbated by the civil war in Libya, where Turkey supports the UN-endorsed government in Tripoli while France has previously backed the renegade general Khalifa Haftar. Paris last month announced it would deploy naval vessels and fighter aircraft to the eastern Mediterranean.

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Via Financial Times