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Greek Island Caught In The Middle Of Dispute Over Energy Reserves

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a basic fact about the NATO alliance. That group of allies includes many nations that were once enemies. Just think of the United States and Germany. NATO allies Greece and Turkey also have a history of hostility and are now on the same side. So why did their war ships patrol ominously near each other near a tiny Greek island off the Turkish coast? Joanna Kakissis went there, and here's what she found.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The trouble started last month. A Turkish research ship escorted by naval vessels glided near disputed waters to explore for natural gas and oil. The ship seemed headed for the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a little more than a mile from Turkey's coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS FLYING)

KAKISSIS: Greece and Turkey began staging military exercises. A Turkish frigate accidentally collided with a Greek ship. TV newscasts declared that confrontation was imminent.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: A Greek news anchor warns that Turkey's president has set his sights on Kastellorizo, which the Turks call Meis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: (Speaking Turkish).

KAKISSIS: While a Turkish anchor reports that Greece is sending troops to the island.

ELENI KARAVELATZI: If you type Kastellorizo on Google, you will have an idea of war, a gray zone - that, you know, something really terrible is happening, which is not true at all.

KAKISSIS: Eleni Karavelatzi runs a tourism marketing company on the island. She grew up here.

KARAVELATZI: Yes, the government of Turkey has been a little bit aggressive. But still, I've never felt afraid. People that are far away from the borders think that we are enemies. People that live near the borders don't think that because they see how easy it is to drink ouzo and mezze with Turks.

KAKISSIS: Kastellorizo is a stunning isle, even if it's less than 4 square miles. Its mountainous coastline dips into deep turquoise waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORN BLARING)

KAKISSIS: It takes 22 hours to get here from Athens by ferry, but it's literally swimming distance from the Turkish coast. Both countries claim the waters and seabed off the island. Deputy Mayor Dimitris Achladiotis says he and other islanders stay away from politics.

DIMITRIS ACHLADIOTIS #1: (Through interpreter) Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO. So I am expecting the big politicians to work this out. We're just trying to keep our economy going and keep tourists from canceling. We would like to see our Turkish neighbors, who used to visit us every day.

KAKISSIS: Achladiotis and the island's other roughly 500 residents live around the port, which looks anything but besieged. Slim, pastel-painted buildings with wooden balconies line the port. A steel-gray battleship is docked next to colorful fishing boats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: The restaurants here grill the amberjack freshly caught by fisherman Dimitris Achladiotis, who has the same name as the deputy mayor but is actually a different person.

DIMITRIS ACHLADIOTIS #2: (Through interpreter) We used to see the Turkish fishermen all the time. We all know each other. Now, instead of the fishermen, Turkish navy ships get too close to us.

KAKISSIS: The Turkish town of Kas is just a few minutes away by speedboat. Before the pandemic, Greeks shopped at the Kas farmer's market every Friday and hung out at the town's clubs and cafes.

TSIKOS MAGIAFIS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Tsikos Magiafis and Hurigul Bakirci met at one of those cafes almost 10 years ago. They're now married with a 3-year-old son named Paraschos.

PARASCHOS: Hey, hey, hey. I love you.

KAKISSIS: The couple has home on both Kastellorizo and in Kas. They run on a beach and bistro on a nearby islet.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: Bakirci, who has learned Greek, says their marriage prompted even more Turks to visit.

HURIGUL BAKIRCI: (Through interpreter) Everyone wanted to see how I settled here, how I was doing. They would bring friends to our beach bistro. And those friends would bring more friends.

KAKISSIS: Turks have not been able to cross to Kastellorizo since March, when the pandemic closed borders and political relations between Turkey and Greece soured. Greek-Turkish tensions over maritime borders are not new. In 1996, the two countries nearly went to war over uninhabited islets.

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KAKISSIS: Father Giorgos Maltezos, who has been the island's priest for more than half a century, also remembers when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974.

GIORGOS MALTEZOS: (Through interpreter) We heard it from the radio. We thought they might invade here, too, so we shut off all the lights on the island. The neighbor Turks did, too. They were too scared to even light a cigarette. At the time, we were vulnerable. We didn't have soldiers here.

KAKISSIS: A military base is now on Kastellorizo.

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KAKISSIS: Shelters for soldiers and civilians are hidden near fields where goats graze. Now with Turkey trying to stake its claim to the seabed off Kastellorizo, Greece is reinforcing its military.

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PRIME MINISTER KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced Greece was purchasing new French fighter jets, helicopters and weapons systems.

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KAKISSIS: The Greek president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, recently visited Kastellorizo...

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PRESIDENT KATERINA SAKELLAROPOULOU: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: ...And said Turkey's government is undermining the friendship built for decades by Greeks and Turks. After her visit, Turkey announced its exploration vessel would return home for maintenance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KAKISSIS: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he wants to give diplomacy a chance. But he added that Turkey will not give up on its gas claims.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

KAKISSIS: Constantina Agapitou’s terrace in Kastellorizo overlooks the Aegean Sea, where she watched Greek and Turkish warships patrolling. Agapitou, a former marketing executive and sixth-generation islander, wonders how long the dispute will drag out.

CONSTANTINA AGAPITOU: The irony is that, you know, by the time this issue is solved, maybe all this gas and whatever will be obsolete. And in the meantime, Kastellorizo and Kas will have suffered.

KAKISSIS: So could Turkey's relationship with the European Union, which has largely taken Greece's side. The EU said it could impose sanctions on Turkey when it meets on the crisis this week. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on the island of Kastellorizo, Greece. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.