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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Greece, Turkey show restraint over crash
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Athens

Despite a mid-air collision between a Greek and Turkish fighter jet on Tuesday, both countries have too much to lose to allow relations to deteriorate.

Greek F-16 fighters
The planes were F-16 fighter jets, used by both air forces

There are many things in Greece that take you by surprise, and I am not just referring to the potency of that seemingly innocuous drink, ouzo or the rustic taste of retsina.

It is a while ago now, but I vividly remember talking with some British friends here in Athens who are both married to Greek women.

They were all about to fly to Istanbul for a long weekend away... fun, interesting but nothing particularly remarkable.

Unless you are Greek.

Their wives both highly educated and well-travelled were distinctly apprehensive.

For them this would mean crossing a thin red-line and entering the camp of the old enemy.

They would be constantly looking over their shoulders as they wandered through the crowded, chaotic streets of the once-fabled capital of the Ottoman empire.

And it is the legacy of that mighty long-lasting empire that is the key to understanding why relations between Greece and Turkey remain fraught to this day - leading to fighter aircraft from both countries chasing each other high above the Aegean Sea.

Never forgotten

For Greeks who are Orthodox Christians, the humiliation of being under the control of the Sultans for 400 years, is never forgotten - especially as they were Muslim.

Not far from where I live in central Athens is a famous square popular with tourists, where that fear of all things from the Ottoman past is set in stone.

It is even more extraordinary that despite the volatility of relations between the two countries, there has not been enough pressure from the international community to put an end to these disputes.
It is in the form of an 18th Century building, currently home of the museum of Greek ceramics.

It was originally built as a mosque under the Ottomans and now once again is in the limelight.

Athens remains one of the very few European capitals without a mosque, despite tens of thousands of Muslim migrants living and working in the city.

They need a proper place of worship and converting the museum of Greek ceramics back into a mosque would be the obvious solution.

But it seems very few Athenians could bear seeing a minaret rising in the midst of their beloved city or hearing the call to prayer. That would evoke too many painful memories of subjugation.

Such is the hostility, that even plans to build a mosque way outside Athens near the airport have been delayed for years.

The local mayor once told me he was worried about foreign tourists seeing the mosque as they flew in and thinking they had arrived in a Muslim country.

Fear of the old enemy with whom so many wars have been fought since the bloody fight for independence almost 200 years ago, reveals itself in other surprising ways.

If you travel to the far north-eastern corner of Greece you eventually reach the cool waters of the River Evros which mark the land border with Turkey.

But tread carefully on the Greek side, there are still thousands of landmines planted in this area in case of a Turkish invasion.

The main flash-points now though are in and above the Aegean Sea.

Territorial disputes

Disputed airspace along the border between the two countries in this region was the cause of Tuesday's mid-air collision between the warplanes.

Turkish pilot
The Turkish pilot survived and was repatriated by helicopter
There are also territorial disputes in the same area which just 10 years ago very nearly led to war.

With both countries belonging to Nato, it is an extraordinary fact that Greek fighter aircraft are frequently scrambled to intercept Turkish jets for allegedly violating Greek air-space.

It is even more extraordinary that despite the volatility of relations between the two countries, there has not been enough pressure from the international community to put an end to these disputes.

In many ways it was a matter of luck that what happened on Tuesday did not escalate into a full-blown crisis.

Luck in the sense that Athens and Ankara have been drawn into a more positive relationship in recent years due to events completely out of their control.

Big earthquakes in each country in 1999 led to significant cross-border cooperation and from that moment on, the traditionally frosty relations began to thaw.

So when the planes crashed on Tuesday, the two sides kept talking to each other to ensure tensions were defused not escalated.

And it seems to have worked.

But the problem is there could well be another mid-air collision unless the dispute is resolved soon.

And next time round there may not be such a desire to contain the resulting crisis.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 25 May, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Greece, Turkey defuse crash row
23 May 06 |  Europe
Country profile: Greece
24 May 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Turkey
24 May 06 |  Country profiles

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