Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos was flying over the Imia islet to lay a wreath on the place where three men of the Hellenic Navy lost their lives, while two Turkish jet fighters were flying overhead, violating Greek airspace.
The minister was commemorating the 20th anniversary of the dangerous confrontation between Greece and Turkey over the two uninhabited islets that belong to Greece, but Turkey had raised territorial claims at the time.
While Kammenos was over Imia on a helicopter to drop the wreath to commemorate the three men, two Turkish fighter planes violated Greek airspace flying over Kalolimnos island.
According to a statement released by the Greek Ministry of National Defense at 10:45 am on Thursday, “a pair of Turkish F-16 entered the FIR and flew over the island of Kalolimnos at 26,000 feet.”
The Turkish F-16 remained in Greek airspace for about one minute and at 10:46 they exited the Athens FIR. According to the statement, the Turkish aircraft were identified and intercepted, according to international rules and established practice.
What happened at Imia in 1996
The Imia incident was the biggest confrontation between the neighboring countries since the Turkish invasion to Cyprus.
In January 1996, Turkey had claimed that the Imia islets belong to Turkey. In reaction to that claim, the mayor of nearby Kalymnos island and a priest hoisted a Greek flag on the islet on January 26.
To counteract, a group of Turkish TV journalists flew to the islet in a helicopter and raised a Turkish flag, bringing down the Greek one. The event was broadcast live on Turkish television. Within 24 hours, on January 30, the Hellenic Navy moved to the islet and replaced the flags.
This caused an exchange of fierce statements between Turkish prime minister Tancu Ciller and his newly elected Greek counterpart Kostas Simitis. Turkish and Greek naval forces were alerted and warships of both countries, both NATO members, sailed to the islets.
During the crisis, on the night of January 28, Greek special forces landed secretly on the east islet undetected and hoisted a Greek flag. On January 31 a Turkish special forces SAT commandos also landed undetected on the west islet and once again changed the flag, escalating the tensions.
Four hours later the Greeks noticed this and a Greek helicopter took off at 5:30 am from the Greek frigate “Navarino” for reconnaissance. During the mission the helicopter crashed over the islets (some speculating due to Turkish fire), but this was concealed by both states to prevent further escalation.
The U.S. intervened and acted as an intermediary. The Greeks and Turks did not speak directly to one another, but were responsive to Washington’s assistance as an informal intermediary. Agreement was given by both sides to the United States to return to the “status quo ante”—i.e., differing views on sovereignty and no military forces on the islets.
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