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Greek Island Of Kastellorizo Caught In Conflict Over Gas Drilling Rights


Tensions between Greece and Turkey have been flaring up in recent weeks over gas exploration rights. These two NATO members seem to be teetering on the brink of conflict over territorial boundaries in the Aegean Sea and the wider Eastern Mediterranean. Caught in the middle is a small Greek island that's just a mile off Turkey's coast. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is there, and she joins us now.

Good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where are you? Tell us about this island.

KAKISSIS: So I'm on an island called Kastellorizo. It's beautiful and tiny, about five square miles. And the Turkish coast is literally swimming distance. And the Greeks and the Turks here are neighbors, and they're friends. They shop at each other's markets, dine at each other's restaurants. I even met a Turkish woman, Hurigul Bakurci, who married a Greek guy here.

HURIGUL BAKURCI: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: She's saying, "The people here in Kastellorizo all have friends in my hometown." But the Greeks and Turks haven't seen much of each other for the past six months because the border closed after the governments started arguing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why have things gotten so bad right now? Tell us about the wider sort of geopolitical conflict.

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, Greece and Turkey have a tortured political history.


KAKISSIS: Yes, they do. And Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, something that Greece has never forgotten. The Greeks and Turks have also argued for years about the sea border between them, and that's became a huge issue lately because of possible offshore natural gas deposits. Turkey says that the most eastern Aegean islands, like Kastellorizo, the island that I'm on right now, are actually on the Turkish continental shelf. And the Turks recently sent an exploration ship to map the seabed near here. A Turkish navy ship escorting the exploration vessel then collided with a Greek navy ship. And yeah - and the two governments started insulting each other, and the militaries are now holding naval exercises at sea.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that's a lot. And definitely, I can imagine that people on the island are worried when they see, you know, actual navy ships, military ships circling where they live.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, you know, I kind of expected the same thing, but, you know, the island of Kastellorizo and the town of Kas have, like, some military presence because of the history between Greece and Turkey. What they say is basically it's just politics, and there's no way that we think there's going to be a war. You know, when I was walking along the port yesterday, people were swimming or fishing or, like, chatting over iced coffee. And that's where I met Eleni Karavellatzi (ph). She runs a tourism company with her dad.

ELENI KARAVELLATZI: I don't like it when I see tourists canceling their flights or whatever because they're afraid of what they've heard because now if you type Kastellorizo on Google, you will have an idea of an army base that, you know, something really terrible is happening, which is not true at all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. But I imagine that because these two countries are members of NATO, there are some efforts here to calm tensions.

KAKISSIS: Yep, and those have been ongoing now for a few weeks. Most recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, OK, let's get to the negotiating table. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is trying to calm them down. And the European Union is planning to hold a summit on this very issue later this month.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Joanna Kakissis.

Thank you very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.