- Title: NATO to support EU in the Mediterranean, maintains presence in Aegean Sea
- Date: 27th October 2016
- Summary: BRUSSELS, BELGIUM (OCTOBER 27, 2016) (REUTERS) EXTERIOR OF NATO HEADQUARTERS NATO FLAG
- Embargoed: 11th November 2016 11:54
- Keywords: NATO Stoltenberg EU migrants Operation Sophia Aegean Turkey
- Location: BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
- City: BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
- Country: Belgium
- Topics: NATO,Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA00155S6LVR
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: NATO will provide maritime and air support to the European Union's maritime mission off Libya's coast and maintain its presence in the Aegean Sea despite a request by Turkey to put an end to the operation there, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday (October 27).
The European Union launched its 'Operation Sophia' in 2015 in response to the migrant crisis, with a mandate to disrupt the people trafficking networks and destroy smugglers' boats.
"Within two weeks, NATO ships and planes will be in the Central Mediterranean, ready to help the EU's 'Operation Sophia' with situational awareness and provide logistical support," Stoltenberg told reporters after the second day of a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels.
On the first day of the meeting Turkey's Defence Minister Fikri Isik told his NATO colleagues at a dinner that Ankara no longer saw a need for NATO's counter-migration mission in the Aegean Sea to continue beyond the end of December, according to two people briefed on the exchanges.
"We decided yesterday evening that we will continue the NATO presence in the Aegean. And the reason why we decided to continue the NATO presence is that partly the NATO presence provided operational and concrete support to the efforts of the coastguards, the Greek and the Turkish coastguards and to Frontex, the European border agency," Stoltenberg said.
Germany and Britain, with U.S. support, see the presence of NATO ships patrolling the waters between historic rivals Greece and Turkey as a way to uphold the EU agreement with Turkey. NATO ships pass reconnaissance to Turkish and Greek coastguards and to the European Union border agency, Frontex.
An end to the NATO mission, agreed in February, would alarm the European Union, which is facing its worst refugee crisis since the end of World War Two, driven by the 5-1/2 year war in Syria that has displaced some 11 million people.
Stoltenberg also said NATO ships were able to spot people smugglers much more quickly than Turkish and Greece coastguards and that the Alliance's presence in the area was providing an important "political platform".
"I think it is important to understand that NATO presence in the Aegean Sea adds value because it is a platform for enhanced cooperation between a non-EU NATO ally, Turkey, with Greece and improved cooperation between Turkey and the European Union. So both for the operational reasons but also as a political platform, the NATO presence in the Aegean has proven very important," he said.
However, diplomats say Turkey is unhappy with NATO ships moving about in waters that Turkey and Greece have long contested, worried that Greece could gain the upper hand in a dispute about a group of islets in the Aegean Sea.
An EU deal with Turkey remains in place and is providing Ankara with billions of euros so long as Turkey keeps refugees on its territory and stops people smugglers moving them across the Aegean to Greece. There, thousands of refugees are already in camps, waiting to be granted asylum or returned home.
According to a European Commission report in September, only 85 people are arriving on the Greek coast every day, compared with over 10,000 arriving in a single day in October last year.
Unlike the EU's mission off the Italian coast, which brings rescued migrants to Europe's shores, migrants are returned to Turkey even if they are picked up in Greek waters.
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