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Greek and Turkish leaders seek to stress thawing relations but tensions remain under the surface

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ISTANBUL (AP) — The leaders of Greece and Turkey met Monday for talks aimed at underlining their efforts to put aside decades-old disputes, but they also revealed deep divisions over the Israel-Hamas war.

Speaking at a news conference in Ankara following the two-hour face-to-face summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan jumped on comments by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in which he described Hamas as a terrorist organization.

“I do not see Hamas as a terror group, ” Erdogan said. “I see it as a group of people trying to protect their own land.” He also revealed that Turkey was currently treating “more than 1,000 Hamas members” in its hospitals.

Greece, like most Western states, considers Hamas a terrorist organization but Erdogan repeated his reference to the group as a “resistance organization.”

The leaders were meeting for the fourth time in the past year in a bid to strengthen a normalization process.

Turkey and Greece, which are NATO members, have been at odds for decades over a series of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and drilling rights in the Mediterranean, and have come to the brink of war three times in the last half-century. A dispute over energy exploration rights in 2020 led to the two countries’ warships facing off in the Mediterranean.

They agreed last December to put their disputes aside and focus on areas where they can find consensus. The list of items on the so-called positive agenda includes trade, energy, education and cultural ties.

Since that summit in Athens, the regional rivals have maintained regular high-level contacts to promote fence-mending initiatives, such as allowing Turkish citizens to visit 10 Greek islands without cumbersome visa procedures.

Stressing the ties between the two countries, Mitsotakis said the deal allowed Turks and Greeks to “get to know each other, which is an important step.”

Similarly, Erdogan referred to the Turkish-Muslim minority in Greece’s Thrace region as a “friendship bridge between the two communities.”

Earlier, he described the normalization process as beneficial to both countries and the region. “The channels of dialogue are being kept open and we are focusing on the positive agenda,” Erdogan said, adding that they were trying to increase trade volumes from $6 billion to $10 billion.

The propensity for quarrels remains, however. The recent opening of a former Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul for use as a mosque led to Greece accusing Turkey of “insulting the character” of a World Heritage Site.

Turkey, meanwhile, criticized a Greek plan unveiled last month for “marine parks” in parts of the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Ankara said the one-sided declaration was “a step that sabotages the normalization process.”

But such low-level disputes are far removed from relations a few years ago, when energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean resulted in a naval confrontation and a vow by Erdogan to halt talks with Mitsotakis’ government.

The two countries are also locked in a dispute over Cyprus, divided since 1974 between its ethnic Greek and Turkish populations. For the past seven years, Turkey has rejected a long-standing agreement for a reunified Cyprus under a federal system. Instead, Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot administration, which is only recognized by Turkey, have proposed a two-state solution.

Despite sharp differences over the Israel-Hamas war, Erdogan and Mitsotakis are keen to hold back further instability in the Mediterranean as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine grinds on.

The recent thaw in relations was partly helped by Greek solidarity after last year’s devastating earthquake in southern Turkey. Erdogan has initiated a broader effort to reengage with Western countries following an election victory last year that saw him extend his two-decade rule by a further five years.

Speaking before the meeting, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said that the leaders would review progress in bilateral relations and the agreed upon areas of cooperation.

“Our country seeks to maintain the climate of dialogue with the neighboring country,” he said, adding that “we believe that dialogue is only positive for the two countries.”

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Elena Becatoros contributed to this report from Athens, Greece.

By ANDREW WILKS
Associated Press

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