Sat, Oct 29, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Turkey calls for end to NATO’s refugee mission in Aegean


Turkey is seeking an end to NATO’s counter-refugee mission in the Aegean Sea and it is telling the US-led alliance that the sharp drop in refugees trying to get to Greece means there is no longer a need for warships to patrol its coast.

Turkish Minister of Defense Fikri Isik on Wednesday told other NATO defense ministers there was no need for the mission to continue beyond the end of December, according to two people briefed on the exchanges, despite strong support across the alliance for the mission.

“This was a temporary mission and the goal has been reached in this temporary mission. There is no need to extend it further,” Isik told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.

“Whether this NATO force is here or not, we will continue our battle against this migrant movement,” he said.

The uncompromising stance came as NATO prepares to help a separate EU migrant maritime mission off Libya’s coast, to which Turkey is to send ships and planes to carry out air and sea patrols of traffickers sending refugees towards Italy.

German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen, whose country leads the Aegean maritime mission, said the operation was secure until Dec. 31.

Asked what could happen next year, she said: “We will have to see then.”

US Vice Admiral James Foggo, who heads the US Navy fleet in Europe and NATO’s naval striking and support forces, said he was unaware of Turkey’s request, or any plan to halt the work.

“It’s been a very successful mission that reduced the migrant traffic by about 95 percent,” he said in a telephone interview.

Diplomats said Turkey is unhappy with NATO ships moving about in waters that Turkey and Greece have long contested and is worried that Greece could gain the upper hand in a dispute about a group of islets in the Aegean Sea.

An end to the NATO mission, agreed in February, would alarm the EU, which is facing its worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, driven by the five-and-a-half year war in Syria that has displaced about 11 million people.

An EU deal with Turkey remains in place and is providing Ankara with billions of euros so long as Turkey keeps refugees on its territory and stops people smugglers moving them across the Aegean to Greece. There, thousands of refugees are already in camps, waiting to be granted asylum or returned home.

According to a European Commission report last month, only 85 people are arriving on the Greek coast every day, compared with more than 10,000 arriving in a single day in October last year.

Unlike the EU’s mission off the Italian coast, which brings rescued migrants to Europe’s shores, migrants are returned to Turkey even if they are picked up in Greek waters.

Germany and Britain, with US support, see the presence of NATO ships patroling the waters between historic rivals Greece and Turkey as a way to uphold the EU agreement with Turkey.

NATO ships pass reconnaissance to Turkish and Greek coastguards and to the EU border agency, Frontex.

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