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Greece welcomes French boost as tension rises in east Med

In this photo provided by the Turkish Defense Ministry, Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis, in red and white, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels a...

In this photo provided by the Turkish Defense Ministry, Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis, in red and white, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels a...

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's prime minister warmly thanked France Thursday for its decision to boost its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek and Turkish warships are closely shadowing each other over a Turkish energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that French President Emmanuel Macron is “a true friend of Greece and also a fervent protector of European values and international law.”

The mounting tension follows Turkey’s move Monday to send a seismic research vessel, escorted by warships, into waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus to prospect for potential offshore gas and oil reserves, following similar discoveries in other parts of the region.

Greece claims part of the area is over its own continental shelf and has demanded that the Turkish ships withdraw. Turkey counters that it’s entitled to conduct research in the area. Greece placed its military on alert, and sent warships to the area off Turkey’s southern coast.

The French defense ministry said two Rafale fighter jets are making a stop on Thursday at Souda, on Crete, after being previously deployed in Cyprus for an exercise.

At sea, the French Lafayette frigate left Cyprus’ port of Larnaca and took part in a maritime exercise with the Greek Navy, the statement said. The Lafayette overnight joined the French helicopter carrier Tonnerre, en route to help Lebanon following the devastating explosion in Beirut.

“That military presence is aiming at reinforcing France’s autonomous assessment of the situation and affirms the country’s attachment to free movement, maritime safety and respect for international law in the Mediterranean Sea,” the ministry said.

Macron announced following a phone call with Mitsotakis late Wednesday that he has decided to “temporarily reinforce the French military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in the coming days, in cooperation with European partners including Greece.”

Greece’s NATO and European Union ally France is the EU’s biggest military power. Complicating matters, Turkey — Greece’s historic regional rival — is also a NATO member but has poor relations with France.

In a televised statement Wednesday, Mitsotakis warned of the “risk of an accident” in the contained area where the Greek and Turkish warships are gathered.

“In such a case, responsibility lies upon the one who gives rise to these circumstances,” he said. He added that Greece is not averse to “even the toughest dialogue,” but that “dialogue becomes irrelevant in a climate of tension and provocation.”

“We will never be the ones to escalate the situation. Yet, self-restraint is only one aspect of our power,” Mitsotakis said. “No provocation will ... go unanswered."

On Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to Israel for talks on the matter. Dendias is due to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday.

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held calls with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as well as the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Hungary and Lithuania ahead of an emergency meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to discuss the situation in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this story.