Thu, May 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Mid-air fighter plane collision risks new crisis

THE GUARDIAN , ISTANBUL, TURKEY

A mid-air collision between jousting Greek and Turkish fighters in disputed airspace over the Aegean Sea on Tuesday threatened to reignite age-old rivalries.

The two planes are believed to have rammed each other, in full view of a passing commercial jetliner. The Turkish pilot, Halil Ozdemir, was rescued by a merchant ship after ejecting, but last night emergency services were still searching for the downed pilot of the Greek F-16 jet.

At first both governments tried to play down the collision, which took place over the Aegean island of Karpathos.

The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gull, spoke to his Greek counterpart, Dora Bakoyannis, after which both sides stressed the need not to let the incident harm relations. In Ankara a foreign ministry official spoke of the crash as a "very unfortunate accident". Military commanders made contact over the incident -- testimony, say diplomats, to years of arduous confidence-building measures. But mutual recriminations soon followed.

The Greek statement said the planes collided at 8,000m after the Turkish jets "violated air traffic rules." Greek military officials said the Turkish plane caused the collision by a "sudden maneuver."

Yesterday the Turkish military reiterated that the crash had been caused by a Greek fighter interfering in Turkish maneuvers in international airspace.

"We see them up there fighting it out every day," the mayor of Karpathos, Michalis Ioannides, said. "At some point something like this was bound to happen," he said, adding that the islanders had heard a "huge explosion" when the planes collided.

The crash, the first of its kind involving military jets from the two Nato allies, comes amid renewed Greek-Turkish tensions in the Aegean and Cyprus. Greece claims its air sovereignty extends 10 miles off its coast, while Turkey recognizes only six miles, the equivalent of Greece's territorial waters. Greece scrambles fighter jets almost every day to intercept Turkish warplanes it says are violating its airspace.

But with nationalist sentiment growing in Turkey before presidential and parliamentary elections next year, and tensions mounting on Cyprus following gains by the hardline Greek Cypriot leader in polls on Sunday, Athens fears the worst.

Although Greece is a leading champion of Turkey's bid to join the EU, Greek politicians, including former foreign minister George Papandreou, fear that the crash could portend a new round of hostilities.

"We are really concerned that what happened today will lead to other bigger and smaller incidents," warned Papandreou, who leads the opposition Socialist Pasok party and was the architect of rapprochement between the two countries.

"Our sovereign rights are non-negotiable but I worry that with the current policies [of the ruling conservatives] the nation's interests could be hurt," he said.

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