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Wednesday, 21 November, 2001, 17:57 GMT
Arrests highlight Greek and Turkish tensions
Unidentified members of the plane spotting group arrested in Greece last Friday
The suspects are being held in a Greek prison
By strategic defence analyst
John Downing

The arrest of 12 British plane-spotters and two Dutchmen charged with spying on a Greek Air Force base on 8 November is a bizarre and disturbing incident.

It is one that has raised serious concerns over the ability of Greece to address serious security issues rather than create a "storm in a teacup" about something that has little or no bearing on its alleged accusation of intelligence gathering.

At present the British and Dutch men are being held in a prison at Nafplion, about 80 miles from Athens.

Lesley Coppin, wife of the plane spotters tour organiser Paul Coppin, is being held in a cell at the Korydallos high security prison in Athens itself.

Reliable partner

Greece is a long-standing member of Nato and has always co-operated as a reliable partner.

It has participated in numerous army, navy and air force joint exercises and its "Order of Battle" (OOB) is well known.

This information is not only published in military planning documents but also in open source publications such as those produced by Jane's and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In both cases, the Greek Government cordially provided information on its OOB when requested.

Unidentified members of the group of 14 plane spotters arrested in Greece last Friday
Those arrested could face a 20-year prison sentence
Initial confidence that the case against this group would be dropped, after the Greek Air Force produced an account detailing their notebooks and photographs of military aircraft, have now been dashed.

A Greek judge has prepared to bring further charges for trespass at an airfield closed to civilians.

If convicted on this count, the spotters could face a maximum 20-year jail sentence.

High-handed?

So why has this incident come about and why has it been dealt with by the Greek authorities in such a dramatic manner?

In other Nato countries, such people would have simply been apprehended by airfield security personnel and escorted away with a courteous, yet firm, warning.

Arrested plane spotters in a police van wait to be taken to the public prosecutor's office in Greece
More serious charges have been brought against the plane-spotters
The real reason is that Greece is, and always has been, paranoid about the perceived threat against it from Turkey (also a Nato member).

This reciprocal state of affairs has, in the past, led to armed conflict between the two nations.

Their relationship has become worse in recent years following the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Treaty of the Sea after 22 years of negotiation.

It allows for nations and their offshore islands to expand their sovereign maritime boundaries considerably.

If ratified by Greece, which has hundreds of islands in the Aegean Sea, it would allow for national control of 80% of the area.

Turkey has stated that such a move would lead to a state of war between the two countries.

Time of tension

So in this time of increased tension - and despite the fact that Greece and Turkey are legally allies - Athens wants to give a clear signal that no form of observation or penetration into its military establishment by unauthorised personnel will be tolerated.

Admittedly under Greek law, trespass on or surveillance of military sites are illegal. Several prosecution cases have emerged in the past, although suspects have usually been discharged.

In this case, bearing in mind the threat to global security following the 11 September terrorist attack in America, the Greek courts might be best advised to drop the charges against nationals of two of the country's major military allies and allow Athens to concentrate on matters that really count.

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