ISTANBUL—Two rival warships from Turkey and Greece have collided in the Eastern Mediterranean, officials from both countries said, amid a naval standoff triggered by Ankara’s recent decision to begin oil exploration in contested waters.
The incident, which occurred Wednesday and wasn’t publicized by either side, highlighted just how close to an open conflict the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have come. It involved the Greek navy’s Limnos frigate and Turkey’s TGC Kemalreis.
Shortly after the collision, French President Emmanuel Macron held a phone conversation with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and ordered the deployment of French warships and jet fighters to the area. Greece is planning to raise the matter and ask for solidarity at a meeting between European Union foreign ministers on Friday, a Greek official said.
The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean has escalated since Turkey in November signed a maritime delimitation agreement with the Libyan government it supports that claimed a large part of what Greece long considered its own exclusive economic zone.
Turkey’s plan to send its Oruc Reis seismic exploration ship to the disputed area was initially stalled by German attempts to broker a compromise. Encouraged by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish and Greek officials planned to resume talks over competing maritime claims that had been suspended for several years.
However, when Greece and Egypt signed their own maritime delimitation agreement on Aug. 6, overlapping with Turkish and Libyan claims, Oruc Reis sailed to what Athens considers the Greek EEZ, accompanied by a Turkish navy flotilla. “We felt betrayed,” a Turkish official said.
Named after an Ottoman admiral better known in the West as Barbarossa, Oruc Reis was guarded by an inner ring of five Turkish warships, with an outer ring of Turkish vessels further away, a senior Greek official said. The Greek warships that shadowed the Turks were under orders not to approach closer than 6,000 yards, he said.
When Limnos, the Greek frigate, tried to position itself from one side of the Turkish formation to the other, Kemalreis reacted “rather clumsily” and the two ships collided, the Greek official said. Limnos, built in the Netherlands more than 40 years ago, sustained no damage and participated in a joint patrol with the French warships the following day.
As for Kemalreis, one of Turkey’s most modern frigates, the Greek official said that the Turkish vessel “has a big hole on its right side where the helicopter hangar is,” adding that Turkey is trying to repair the vessel at sea so as not to admit the extent of the damage. “It’s an unfortunate incident that shows the risks of military brinkmanship,” the Greek official said.
Turkish officials confirmed that a collision took place between the two warships. “There was no escalation,” one official said. “There was self-restraint.”
The officials referred questions on damages allegedly suffered by the Kemalreis to the Turkish Defense Ministry, which didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Alluding to the issue on Thursday and Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the incident as an attack by the Greek side but didn’t provide details of how it unfolded.
“If this goes on, we will retaliate,” Mr. Erdogan said Friday. “We shall not leave either the dead or the living of our kin alone. And whatever is necessary, we will do it when the time comes. Let me say it loud and clear.”
Turkey’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean grew more expansionist as Israel, Cyprus and Egypt developed valuable natural-gas reserves in their EEZs over the past decade—and as Mr. Erdogan allied himself with hard-line nationalists in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt.
As part of that shift, Mr. Erdogan increasingly embraced the so-called Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, concept that lays claim on a large part of the region’s maritime area and interprets international law in a way that denies the Greek islands the right to an EEZ.
“We will definitely not consent to the attempts which ignore such a giant land of 780 thousand square kilometers as Turkey and seek to confine us to our coasts over the islands of just a few square kilometers,” Mr. Erdogan said this month. “No country in the world would succumb to such a ridiculous and baseless request.”
Fearing a clash that could potentially destroy NATO, Germany tried to push Ankara and Athens to negotiate over their claims later this month. Mr. Erdogan’s decision to dispatch Oruc Reis made such talks impossible, at least for now, Greek officials say.
“We do not fear even the toughest dialogue because we have faith in the fairness of our positions,” Mr. Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, said in a televised address Wednesday. “However, dialogue becomes irrelevant in a climate of tension and provocation.”