Greece will decide today whether to accept the proposal of the Council of European Union foreign ministers on the issue of the EU-Turkey customs union, government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos said yesterday. The decision, the spokesman added, would be taken at a meeting to be chaired by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou at which "all the parameters of the issue" would be examined.
"The government is waiting to hear a presentation by Alternate Foreign Minister George Alexander Mangakis of all the facts, to see all the documents, to assess the political aspects on the basis of the criteria and aims which are known and fixed, before making its final position known," Mr. Venizelos said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mangakis urged the government yesterday to
ratify the EU plan allowing for the commencement of talks on Cyprus' admission to the 15-member bloc, saying that "with the discussions in Brussels and the in principle decision ... the Cyprus problem emerges out from its deadlock." Mr. Mangakis attended Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels which reached an "in principle" agreement on a start to Cyprus accession talks and a customs union between the EU and Turkey.
Mr. Venizelos acknowledged the "important" and "persistent" efforts made by Mr. Mangakis during negotiations which, he said, were conducted in a "particularly" unfavourable climate. He said Mr. Mangakis had managed to bring the issue to a conclusion which was "more favourable than that which was apparent initially". Mr. Venizelos reiterated that the French presidency had not put the issues in the manner recently agreed in talks between former foreign Under-Secretary Yiannos Kranidiotis and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
Replying to questions, the spokesman said that at various points during Monday's meeting Mr. Mangakis was in contact with Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias, Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides and Cyprus Foreign Minister Alekos Michaelides and on one occasion spoke to Mr. Papandreou.
He clarified however that in the final stage of talks on the wording of the agreement, Mr. Mangakis had not been in contact with the government "which is why the alternate foreign minister reserved agreement before first discussing the matter with the government".
Speaking to the press on arrival from Brussels yesterday Mr. Mangakis urged the government to ratify the EU plan. "With the discussions in Brussels and the in principle decision which is subject to the approval of the government and the prime minister, the Cyprus problem emerges from its deadlock," Mr. Mangakis said.
Mr. Mangakis said he was "caught by surprise" at the Brussels meeting when the French presidency presented the issue for discussion on the basis of four proposals, none of which included the "Kranidiotis-Juppe" formula. "The plan was not tabled as the basis of an agreement for a time schedule for Cyprus' membership negotiations," he told reporters. The minister said a government decision to reject Monday's plan would not lead him to resign from his new post.
Mr. Venizelos described as "positive" but "an isolated event" the decision of the German cabinet to approve the agreement of the Council of Ministers in the belief that it contains an EU commitment for the commencement of negotiations for Cyprus' accession.
Referring to satisfaction of the Cypriot government over the agreement, Mr. Venizelos said it referred to the setting of a date for the commencement of Cyprus' accession procedures into the EU.
"What's important for us is the fact that the European Union has set a date for the start of talks with Cyprus and we have already thanked the Greek government for its efforts," Cypriot government spokesman Yiannakis Cassoulides said yesterday in Nicosia.
He added however, that Greece had every right to be sceptical over the kind of financial assistance Turkey would receive in connection with the customs union. He added that Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides was also pleased with France and Germany over their positive contribution which helped the EU reach the decision to set a negotiations date.
An EU-Turkish customs union would give Turkey closer relations with the EU than any other non-member except Norway and Iceland. Links between Turkey and the EU have been hindered for years by an Athens-Ankara row over the island of Cyprus, divided since 1974. EU foreign ministers agreed to commit their member states to starting talks on Cyprus membership six months after the end of next year's intergovernmental review of EU treaties.
In a reply to a press question on Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides' favourable comments over Monday's decision, Mr. Evert said: "Mr. Clerides has his own views. We have ours."
Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias said yesterday that Mr. Mangakis had "acted in accordance with the instructions he had from the government". Speaking to reporters after briefing main opposition New Democracy party leader Miltiades Evert on the Brussels meeting, Mr. Papoulias said that Mr. Mangakis had conducted "tough negotiations and achieved what he achieved".
Mr. Papoulias confirmed that Mr. Mangakis had been in contact not only with him but also with Mr. Clerides and Mr. Michaelides. Monday's decision sparked strong criticism from political parties, saying it deviated from a formula previously worked out between Mr. Kranidiotis and Mr. Juppe.
Main opposition New Democracy party leader Miltiades Evert yesterday lashed out at Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and the Foreign Ministry saying their handling had led the issue to "a national impasse." "If the government accepts the in principle agreement this would mean unprecedented damage (for Greece) whereas if it turns it down it would cause a serious rift in our relations with the European Union and also strain our relations with Turkey," Mr. Evert said.
He stressed the need "to amend the decision even at this time," saying that the phrase "can begin," in reference to Monday's decision to bring forward talks on EU membership of Cyprus, should be replaced. "We've lost a strategic weapon and gained nothing," Mr. Evert said.
Political Spring party leader Antonis Samaras yesterday called on the government not to approve the Brussels agreement. "We gave everything and got nothing in return," Mr. Samaras said. "If we don't turn down the agreement we will have undergone huge national damage and will have overturned a policy against Turkey which all (Greek) governments, after the fall of the junta, have forced on the Community," he added.
Meanwhile in Ankara, Turkey said EU membership of Cyprus while the dispute over the divided island continued, would jeopardise a lasting solution to the issue. "Admission of 'south Cyprus' to the EU or customs union of 'south Cyprus' with the EU before a fair and lasting settlement in Cyprus will create very serious obstacles in the way if a solution," said Foreign Minister Murat Karayalcin. He said if Cyprus joined the group before a solution was found, the Turkish community would move towards integration with mainland Turkey.
An ANA dispatch from Brussels later said the in principle agreement will be discussed on Tuesday at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The government named Anastasios Peponis, PASOK deputy and former Minister to the Prime Minister's Office, as new justice minister late last night after Justice Minister George Kouvelakis resigned. Mr. Kouvelakis tendered his resignation following a row with Under-Secretary to the Prime Minister Antonis Livanis over prison reform policy. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou accepted Mr. Kouvelakis' resignation without any immediate comment.
In his letter or resignation, Mr. Kouvelakis, accused Mr. Livanis of undermining his work on prison and judicial reform. He said a senior prison guard from Korydallos jail had met with a prisoner from former Yugoslavia at the Alikarnasos penitentiary, the warden of which claimed that the meeting took place after the guard used the name of Mr. Livanis.
"Such actions cause deep concern," Mr. Kouvelakis said. "...My political conscience ...forces me not to remain silent before such phenomena, not to compromise...," he said. The guard in question, however, said yesterday that he had visited Alikarnasos penitentiary in his capacity as president of the Federation of Prison Employees and did not know Mr. Livanis.
Commenting on Mr. Kouvelakis' resignation, main opposition New Democracy party spokesman Vassilis Manginas called on the government to investigate the reasons behind the minister's resignation and put an end to the "devious rackets" in the Greek prisons.
"The resignation of a minister is of a political nature and not of a police nature," government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos later said in reply, ruling out "an alleged relation between government officials and rackets in the judicial system."
Political Spring party spokesman Akis Gerontopoulos called on the government to provide explanations, adding that Mr. Kouvelakis has drawn attention to "situations causing a major moral issue." He said "inter-governmental conflict has dealt a blow to justice."
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) said Mr. Kouvelakis' resignation "is the reflection of opposing and conflicting interests which extend even to the higher levels in the government."
A Coalition of the Left and Progress spokesman called on the government "to shed light over Mr. Kouvelakis' resignation."
A Press Ministry announcement said Mr. Peponis would be sworn in after consultations with the President's office to set a date for the ceremony.
A Turkish F-16 fighter plane crashed Southeast of the island of Rhodes while exiting the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR) yesterday. The F-16's pilot, identified as 27-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Yildirim, parachuted to safety and was later rescued by a Greek search and rescue helicopter and taken to Rhodes. He was repatriated by a Greek plane later in the evening after being hospitalised briefly, where he was found to be "in good health."
The fighter plane went into a dive and crashed while leaving the Athens FIR following interception by Greek Air Force planes. Informed sources said that the Turkish jet-fighter crashed Southeast of the island of Rhodes, possibly outside the Athens FIR. The plane was earlier spotted by two Greek Air Force Mirage F-1 planes, which took off to intercept it from Iraklion on the island of Crete.
Three other Turkish F-16s had also violated the Athens FIR and been intercepted by Greek jet-fighters. The same sources added that the pilot of the crashed F-16 ejected at 11:35 local time and was picked up by a Greek search and rescue helicopter at 12:07.
Government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos said the Turkish F-16 was flying inside the Athens FIR, but outside the limits of Greek airspace and territorial waters when it crashed. He said the Turkish fighter had previously been only identified but not intercepted, adding that the crash was probably due to engine trouble.
Mr. Venizelos described the crash of the Turkish F-16 as "not an uncommon event", clarifying that it had nothing to do with the identification and interception procedure. When the F-16 went down, he added, there was no Greek aircraft at a "crucial" distance. The spokesman said that the Foreign Ministry had informed the Turkish Ambassador in Athens and the government had expressed satisfaction over the rescue of the pilot.
According to informed sources, the F-16 which crashed was part of a formation of four Turkish warplanes which infringed flight regulations in the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR) and, in certain instances, violated Greek airspace east of the island of Karpathos.
On returning to their base, most probably at Balikisir, the Turkish formation split up into two pairs. The Turkish aircraft were flying at an altitude of 1000 feet when, ten nautical miles south-east of Rhodes, one of the jets in the second pair encountered, according to NATO sources, a fuel injection problem and the pilot was forced to eject.
Immediately on being informed of the incident, National Defence Minister Gerasimos Arsenis contacted Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias to set in motion the usual representations to the Turkish government in cases of an infringement of the Athens FIR or violation of Greek air space by Turkish aircraft.
Mr. Arsenis told reporters that he had not been in contact with his Turkish counterpart nor with NATO officials over the incident. He said the Turkish aircraft were flying close by when the pilot was rescued, but said that there had been no harassment.
The pilot was later visited by Niazin Andalin, the Turkish consul general in Rhodes, who told reporters the unfortunate incident would not affect Greek-Turkish relations. "The crash will not disturb relations between Greece and Turkey. On the contrary the incident will lead to a strengthening of ties," Mr. Andalin said.
He said officials at the Turkish embassy in Athens informed him that the crash was caused by a malfunction of the F-16 plane. "Information I obtained from the embassy refers to a malfunction that caused the plane to crash," Mr. Andalin said. He expressed gratitude over the quick assistance provided by the Greek authorities in helping rescue the pilot.
A medical communiqui issued by the hospital shortly before the pilot's release said he had suffered a broken jaw from the crash, but was "in good health". The Turkish pilot was later transported to Turkey on board a military C-130 cargo plane.
In Ankara, Foreign Minister Murat Karayalcin said the pilot was flying in international airspace. "I don't believe the incident to be of a magnitude to increase tension in Greek-Turkish relations," Mr. Karayalcin was quoted by the Reuters news agency as telling the press. A Turkish military spokesman later was quoted by Reuters as saying the plane crashed due to a technical fault during a training flight.
Albania's Supreme Court yesterday reduced and suspended the sentences on four ethnic Greek members of Albania's minority Omonia organisation jailed on charges of spying for Greece and firearms possession last September.
The four, Vangelis Papachristos, Theodoros Bezianis, Panayiotis Martos, and Costas Kyriakos, along with Iraklis Sirmos, who was pardoned by presidential decree on Christmas Eve last year, were initially sentenced to terms ranging from six to eight years.
The court yesterday upheld the original conviction, but reduced their sentences to five years, and then suspended them. Defence lawyers at yesterday's hearing referred extensively to violations of their clients' rights from the moment of their arrest, including that to a fair trial.
Initial optimism for an early release of the four evaporated last night after being blocked by the prosecutor's office, which said that the decision was "quite obviously not based on the law", and filed a challenge to the plenum of the Supreme Court. Under existing legislation, the move might delay the release for up to two months.
Earlier, Foreign Under-Secretary Arzan Starova, speaking to Albanian television, said he believed "the release of the four Greeks would improve Greek-Albanian relations".
Greece and Albania have been at loggerheads for years over the rights of Albania's ethnic Greek population, estimated by Athens at 400,000. The conviction of the Omonia five last September was linked to an armed raid on an Albanian army barracks near the Greek border in April, when two Albanian soldiers were killed. Greece had made their release a precondition for an improvement in relations between the two countries.
(Greek Press Office in Ottawa NOTE: According to more recent news from Albania, the four Greek Minority leaders, still imprisoned, were released after midnight, local time.)
Before the announcement that the release of the Omonia four was blocked by the prosecutor's office, Greek parties welcomed the Albanian court's decision to suspend the sentences of the four ethnic Greeks.
"The court's decision is a positive step that opens the way for talks with Albania," main opposition leader Miltiades Evert said. "Relations between the two countries can and should improve but normalisation hinges on the complete protection of the human rights of the ethnic Greek minority in Albania," the conservative New Democracy party leader added.
After the announcement that the release of the four would be delayed, Mr. Evert said he hoped "Tirana would follow a more prudent course. Otherwise, they will be exposed to international public opinion, with all that entails".
A cautious welcome to the Albanian move was voiced by the Political Spring party, saying the decision should not overshadow "daily human rights violations" against the ethnic Greek minority in southern Albania. Spokesman Akis Gerontopoulos said his party awaited the actual release of the four ethnic Greeks, noting that "deception is a prime substance of (Albanian president Sali) Berisha's politics".
The Coalition of the Left and Progress labelled the Albanian move a positive step in the direction of normalising relations between Athens and Tirana. It called on the government to "seize the opportunity" and launch an initiative for direct dialogue between the neighbouring states.