Turkish, Greek PMs pledge to build ties

The Prime Ministers traded criticism over long-standing bilateral tensions.

Updated: Jan 08, 2011, 09:45 AM IST

Ankara: The Prime Ministers of Turkey and Greece on Friday traded criticism over long-standing bilateral tensions, but pledged to build on a significant thaw in ties to resolve their disputes.

Following talks in the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum, the two leaders also vowed to step up cooperation to stem illegal immigration to the European Union as Turkey`s Premier expressed understanding for Greece`s plans to build a barrier on parts of their shared border.

"We discussed the issue and we have full confidence in each other," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a televised news conference with his Greek counterpart George Papandreou.

Erdogan said he was impressed to learn that Greece currently hosted about one million illegal immigrants, most of whom reached the country through Turkey.

"The figures are very, very high and they influenced my opinion," he added.

Papandreou said he was "confident" of increased cooperation to combat human traffickers.

"We have to convince the Europeans that we have a very serious and close cooperation with Turkey," he said through an interpreter.

Papandreou was in Erzurum for a conference of senior Turkish diplomats, which he attended as a guest.

Together with Erdogan, he strolled through the city and visited historical monuments, underscoring the remarkable rapproachement between the two traditional rivals since 1999.

However, the neighbours -- long estranged by a bloody history -- remain at loggerheads over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, divided between its Turkish and Greek communities since 1974.

"We are facing notable difficulties.... Building confidence is not easy," Papandreou said in a televised speech earlier, stressing that eight Turkish military aircraft violated Greek air space as recently as Wednesday.

"What is Turkey trying to prove?... Are we really condemned to tension?”

"If I had believed in that, I would not have been here today. I believe in Mr Erdogan... I believe we can achieve confidence and peace," he said.

Papandreou denounced also Turkey`s military presence in northern Cyprus and warned that "as long as Turkey`s occupation continues, the problems in Turkey`s EU membership process will continue”.

He urged Ankara for "new dynamism" in reforms to align with EU norms.

Erdogan, for his part, accused the EU of discrimination towards Turkey in its struggling membership bid.

"If you do not want to take Turkey, say that openly.... We will maintain our patience to a certain point, but patience runs out," he said.

He also slammed the EU for having failed to keep promises to ease the isolation of the self-declared Turkish Cypriot statelet, made in 2004 when its people voted in favour of a UN plan to reunify Cyprus, killed off by a resounding "no" in Greek Cyprus, which is internationally recognised.

He also criticised Greece for not allowing its Turkish minority to elect its religious leader.

Referring to territorial disputes in the Aegean, Erdogan spoke of "mutual flights" that create tensions, but stressed "there is no reason for us not to resolve" them.

"I have no doubt over the sincerity of my dear friend (Papandreou)... Since we are both determined (to reconcile), we have to succeed," he said.

The two leaders said they planned to meet again in July as part of a newly-inaugurated bilateral consultation council comprising some 10 ministers from each side.

Bureau Report