The two Aegean islets of Imia are tiny, uninhabited and harbor no oil or gas, so how did they bring two NATO allies – Greece and Turkey — to the brink of war 22 years ago this month?
Unlikely as it may seem, a dispute over salvage rights between a Turkish and a Greek captain was the trigger for a series of events which escalated into major international incident.
The spiraling crisis saw both countries’ special forces deployed, the U.S. get involved, and three Greek officers lose their lives.
On Dec. 26, 1995, a Turkish cargo vessel – the Figen Akat – ran aground on the easternmost of the two islets, which are just seven kilometers (4.4 miles) from the coast of Bodrum, Turkey.
When a Greek tug approached to help, the Turkish captain insisted he was in his country’s territorial waters. Eventually towed to a Turkish port, a routine salvage claim by the Greek skipper began wheels turning in faraway Ankara.
On Dec. 27 Turkey contacted the Greek authorities in a precursor to declaring ownership of the two tiny islets.
The Aegean had been the scene of repeated tensions between the two supposed allies over islands, islets, territorial waters, and airspace.
What made Imia different was the way in which the situation escalated, dragging in the U.S., the European Union and the political leaderships of both countries.
Athens denied the Turkish sovereignty claim, citing a range of international treaties from 1923, 1932 and 1947. But it was not until later, in January 1996, that events took a turn for the worse.
Having gone largely unnoticed at first, the Greek press seized on the issue which became the first to confront new Greek premier Kostas Simitis. On Jan. 25 Greeks from the nearby inhabited island of Kalymnos sailed to Imia and raised the Greek flag.
Turkey’s media suddenly took notice and team of reporters from the Hurriyet newspaper were dispatched to the islets (called Kardak in Turkish) to unfurl their country’s flag on live television.
Greece’s navy intervened on Jan. 27, sailing to the islets and replacing the Turkish flag as an increasingly febrile atmosphere gripped both countries and saw Simitis trading barbs with his Turkish counterpart, Tansu Ciller.
Naval vessels from both states sailed to the hotspot, and Turkish troops in northern Cyprus were reported to have moved closer to the island’s dividing line, prompting an alert from Greek Cypriot forces.
Greek special forces were landed on Imia and, on Jan. 31, Turkish forces followed suit. Four hours later the crisis claimed its first lives, as a helicopter from the Greek frigate Navarino crashed while on a reconnaissance mission, killing three officers on board: Christodoulos Karathanasis, Panagiotis Vlahakos and Ektoras Gialopsos.
Although the incident was covered up at the time, there are allegations the helicopter had been fired up by Turkish forces.
In January 2016, the three men’s deaths were commemorated by Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos who dropped a wreath from a helicopter flying over the islets – an event widely covered on Turkish television.
It was only shuttle diplomacy by the U.S.– as NATO’s largest military power – which halted the escalations and returned the situation to an enduring and frosty stalemate.
Greece and Turkey continue to differ on the islets’ sovereignty and no military forces are stationed there. However, the issue continues to dog relations between Athens and Ankara, often arising amid other incidents in the Aegean where Greek and Turkish ships or military forces come into close contact.
A month before Kammenos’ 2016 flight over Imia, Ankara’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed them as “Turkish soil”. Even senior figures from Turkey’s opposition keep returning to the issue of Aegean sovereignty.
Earlier this month, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu spread the net wider, asking the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to confirm if 18 Aegean islands – including the inhabited Greek island of Pserimos – were actually Greek or not.
Speaking earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stuck a similar tone, telling Athens in comments reported by Haberturk: “While we are busy fighting terrorism, it does not fit our neighbors to try to fish in cloudy waters.”
Although those tense days of 1996 have cast a shadow over official Greek/Turkish relations, the Aug. 17, 1999 earthquake; which devastated large parts of Turkey and killing 17,000 people according to official figures, saw its Greek neighbors moved to send aid, donate blood and extend a helping hand, despite decades of mistrust.
When Athens was struck by an earthquake a month later, killing 143 people, the Turkish people also responded, sending rescue workers and other support.
Still, these two tiny islets have been the scene of repeated games of ‘chicken’ between Turkish and Greek forces. Sometimes unconnected events spark a renewal of tension, such as Greek courts’ refusal to extradite eight Turkish former servicemen for their alleged role in the July 2016 coup.
This saw a worsening in relations between Athens and Ankara, and in Jan. 29 of last year, Greece’s Ministry of Defence said it had been forced to see off a Turkish navy boat and two smaller craft containing Turkish special forces from Imia.
Athens remains cagey about Turkish activity in the region. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week:
“For somebody (sic), it is very easy to be also aggressive if they are living in Luxembourg or Netherlands, because their neighbors are Belgium and Luxembourg, and not Turkey. But it’s not so easy for us.”