Turkey and Greece resume talks to resolve maritime disputes

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Representatives of Turkey and Greece attend a meeting as part of the bilateral talks on the maritime disputes in Istanbul, Turkey January 25, 2021. (Reuters)
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Plans for resuming discussions foundered last year over Turkey’s deployment of a survey vessel in contested Mediterranean waters and disagreements over which topics to cover. (File/AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2021

Turkey and Greece resume talks to resolve maritime disputes

  • Crisis sparked by Turkish energy exploration vessel working in disputed waters
  • Turkey faces potential EU sanctions over its energy exploration

ANKARA: Turkey and Greece on Monday held talks aimed at resolving maritime disputes, the first exploratory talks held since 2016.

Bilateral relations have been under particular strain since last year, when Turkey sent an energy exploration vessel to disputed waters near Greek islands. The move led to a crisis, with EU leaders threatening sanctions.

The two NATO members held 60 rounds of talks, described as exploratory rather than official, between 2002 and 2016.

Experts cautioned against having high expectations about any immediate success from the talks, which resumed after a years-long hiatus.

Dr. Zenonas Tziarras, researcher at PRIO Cyprus Centre, said the exploratory talks were not negotiations as such and, therefore, no agreement was expected.

“They aim to explore the intentions and positions of the two parties as well as set the agenda of the actual negotiations,” he told Arab News. “Much will depend on whether they can agree to limit the agenda to the issue of maritime zones, such as continental shelf, exclusive economic zone and perhaps territorial waters, leaving items that Turkey wants to add - like demilitarization of the islands - out.”

He said that although Turkey initiated the talks, they had been scheduled for last summer and got sidetracked by the Greek-Turkish crisis. “Turkey has made this move because, just like Greece, it sees the talks as a mechanism for de-escalation that allows it to focus on other problems and a projection of ‘good behavior’ in light of the new presidency in the US.”

He added that Turkey was trying to convince the West, including the US and the EU, that it remained a committed Western partner.

“However, these are tactical moves that aim to appease harsh reactions to Turkish foreign policy from the EU and the US, such as more sanctions, and allow Ankara to reap more benefits from these relations.”

Greece wants to limit the talks to rival interpretations about the delimitation of maritime boundaries under the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Turkey is not a party to.

But maritime delimitation talks could take a long time as neither side appears ready for compromises that could cost them popular support at home.

“We will attend with optimism but zero naivety,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a parliamentary session, referring to the disagreements with Turkey over maritime borders.

Turkey also intends to discuss a range of other long-running and thorny issues, such as the demilitarization of Greek islands or sovereignty of certain rocks. It accuses Greece of illegally deploying troops on some islands.

The two countries almost came to blows in 1996 over the sovereignty of an uninhabited Aegean islet.

“If there is a convergence of interests and an agreement on the agenda, the two sides can either solve the issue politically or refer their dispute to the International Court of Justice,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the International Center of European Formation, told Arab News. “The process will be a long and time-consuming one.”

The talks follow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dialling down his confrontational rhetoric toward the EU, emphasizing his willingness to open a new chapter in relations with the bloc.

“I would judge the success of these talks if both parties decide on the continuation of talks,” Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul think-tank Edam, told Arab News. “But it is important that these talks serve as an insurance policy against any potential escalation in the East Med.”

A NATO defense ministers meeting in February and an EU summit in March also serve as an additional source of leverage over the talks between the two neighbors.

Tzogopoulos was pessimistic about a breakthrough but optimistic about a joint understanding of the need for some bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

“For now, Greece counts on calmness in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to concentrate on its post-COVID-19 economic recovery and the absorption of EU funds. Turkey, for its part, is also looking for calmness in its interest in recalibrating its relations with the EU as well as with the new American administration.”

The exploratory talks in Istanbul coincide with intense discussions about potential EU sanctions against Turkey over its energy exploration in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Brussels pledged to enlarge a sanctions blacklist with more names.

A controversial agreement from 2019 between Turkey and Libya over the maritime borders in the Mediterranean could also be jeopardized by the exploratory talks.

The agreement delineated the maritime borders between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus.

It was criticized by the EU, which described it as a serious breach of international law, but is likely to be used as a bargaining chip against another deal that was signed last August for the partial demarcation of maritime boundaries between Greece and Egypt.

Tzogopoulos said that Greece would rely on its agreement with Egypt and that Turkey would turn to its agreement with Libya if a formal dialogue on maritime zones started.

“Some zones covered in the two agreements do overlap, whereas other zones remain undelimited. So, a potential settlement requires compromises by the two countries as well as the participation of other countries of the Mediterranean in talks.”


India sets up holding center for Rohingya in Kashmir

Updated 07 March 2021

India sets up holding center for Rohingya in Kashmir

  • An estimated 40,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in parts of India
  • 5,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in Jammu in the past few years

SRINAGAR: Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have sent at least 168 Rohingya refugees to a holding center, police said Sunday, in a process that they say is for the deportation of thousands of the refugees living in the region.

The move began Saturday following a directive from the region’s home department to identify Rohingya living in the southern city of Jammu, said Inspector-General Mukesh Singh. He said around 5,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in Jammu in the past few years.

“All of them are illegally living here and we have begun identifying them,” Singh said. “This process is to finally deport them to their country.”

More than 1 million Rohingya have fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently mainly living in overcrowded, squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Since Saturday, officials have called hundreds of Rohingya to a stadium in Jammu, taking their personal details and biometrics and testing them for the coronavirus. A jail has been converted into a holding center in the outskirts of the city, and at least 168 Rohingya have so far been sent there, Singh said.

Rohingyas refugees stand at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Jammu, India, on March 7, 2021. (AP)

The refugees, who have previously faced hostility in the city, were not informed of what was going on. Jammu is a Hindu-dominated area in Muslim-majority Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Khatija, a Rohingya Muslim woman who uses one name, said the Indian authorities took away her son on Saturday and she didn’t know where he was being kept. Her daughter-in-law gave birth on Sunday morning, she said.

An estimated 40,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in parts of India. Fewer than 15,000 are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Many have settled in areas of India with large Muslim populations, including the southern city of Hyderabad, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi. Some have taken refuge in northeast India bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The Indian government says it has evidence there are extremists who pose a threat to the country’s security among the Rohingya and calls all of them “illegal immigrants” who will be deported.

In 2018 and 2019, Indian authorities deported at least 12 Rohingya in two groups to Myanmar. Rights groups have asked the Indian government to abandon plans for deporting Rohingya and evaluate their asylum claims.


Swiss look set to approve ban on facial coverings in tight referendum

Updated 07 March 2021

Swiss look set to approve ban on facial coverings in tight referendum

  • Opinion polls had suggested that the measure, which the government has said went too far, could pass and the ban would become law
  • The proposal predates the COVID-19 pandemic and gathered the necessary support to trigger a referendum

ZURICH: Swiss voters were projected to approve by a slim majority a far-right proposal to ban facial coverings in a binding referendum on Sunday viewed as a test of attitudes toward Muslims.
Projections for broadcaster SRF, based on partial results, showed the measure passing 51% to 49%, with a two-point margin for error.
The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.
Opinion polls had suggested that the measure, which the government has said went too far, could pass and the ban would become law.
“In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms,” Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party, had said before the vote.
He called facial covering “a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland.”
The proposal predates the COVID-19 pandemic — which has required all adults to wear masks in many settings to prevent the spread of infection — and gathered the necessary support in 2017 to trigger a referendum.
The proposal compounded Switzerland’s tense relationship with Islam after citizens voted in 2009 to ban building any new minarets. Two cantons already have local bans on face coverings.


Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

Updated 07 March 2021

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

  • The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Sunday reported 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, including 1,534 in Moscow, taking the national case tally to 4,322,776 since the pandemic began.
The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the Russian death toll to 89,094.


Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

Updated 07 March 2021

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

  • It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment
  • Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts
MULTAN, Pakistan: Eight cars of a Lahore bound train derailed in southern Pakistan early Sunday, killing at least one passenger and injuring 40 others, officials said.
The accident took place between the Rohri and Sangi stations in southern Sindh province and caused a temporary suspension of railway traffic in both directions, said Kamran Lashari, a railway official.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment. Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where successive governments have paid little attention to improving the poorly maintained signal system and aging tracks.
Lashari said eight cars of the 18-car train that departed from Karachi for the eastern city of Lahore derailed and six fell into a shallow ditch.
Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts. He said the body of the woman who died and 40 injured passengers were taken to hospitals in nearby towns. It wasn’t immediately clear how many passengers were on the train.
Railway Minister Azam Sawati told a local television station that the accident was being investigated and the government would provide financial compensation to the heirs of deceased woman and all the injured.

Khalilzad seeks support to shake up Afghan peace process, warring parties object

Updated 07 March 2021

Khalilzad seeks support to shake up Afghan peace process, warring parties object

  • Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his first since under Joe Biden's administration
  • Peace negotiations in Doha are making little progress and violence in Afghanistan escalating

KABUL/ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON: The US special envoy to Afghanistan proposed a shakeup of the stalled peace process this week, including an interim government and a conference of key players, according to diplomatic and political sources, but his plan faced immediate objections by the warring sides. 
Afghan-born US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his first since US President Joe Biden’s administration began reviewing its options for the peace process and as time runs out before a May 1 US troop withdrawal deadline. 
With peace negotiations in the Qatari capital making little progress and violence in Afghanistan escalating, Khalilzad is trying to build consensus around alternative options with all Afghan sides and key regional players, sources said.
“(The United States) thinks Doha isn’t working and needs impetus and an alternate approach,” said one diplomatic source who closely follows the process.
In Kabul, Khalilzad met Abdullah Abdullah, the chief peace envoy, President Ashraf Ghani and other political and civil society leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai.
Three diplomatic sources, two sources on the teams of political leaders who met with Khalilzad and two international sources in Kabul said one of the envoy’s main proposals was an interim government arrangement, referred to as a participatory or representative government.
A former Afghan government official familiar with the matter said Khalilzad shared a document detailing the power-sharing proposal and that it revised a paper he circulated in December.
Another proposal was a meeting with a similar format to the 2001 Bonn conference, to involve representatives from a wide range of Afghan parties meeting in person while international agencies and diplomats push them to a solution.
Anti-Taliban leaders met under international auspices in the German city of Bonn after the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the insurgents from power and agreed on a provisional administration and a roadmap for forming a permanent government and writing a new constitution.
“We’re considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Friday.
“The United States is not making any formal proposals and is continuing to review all relevant options for future force posture — and all means all,” a State Department spokesperson said on Saturday. “Ambassador Khalilzad has discussed a range of ways to move the diplomacy forward, nothing more.”
The two international sources said Khalilzad is asking the United Nations to take a lead role and call the conference.
Spokespeople for the UN mission in Afghanistan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two of the sources said the conference could be held in Turkey, but a third cautioned that location might meet resistance from Western nations and other countries including Germany and Uzbekistan were being considered.

CHALLENGES AHEAD
Khalilzad’s plans immediately encountered objections from both the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Ghani made a fiery speech in Afghanistan’s parliament on Saturday, repeating his refusal to step aside for an interim government. “Any institution can write a fantasy on a piece of paper and suggest a solution for Afghanistan” he said, warning any transfer of power would have to take place through elections as required by the constitution.
Two international officials in Kabul said Ghani’s fierce opposition would be a problem for the plan.
“The problem here is that Ghani can blame the United States directly ... by challenging his legitimacy and considering an interim government it implies they are undermining the democratic process,” one of the officials said.
A Taliban leader in Doha who spoke on condition of anonymity said Khalilzad raised the possibility of an interim government and a conference with the insurgents’ negotiating team, as well as asking for a cease-fire or reduction in violence by 60-70%.
“Khalilzad has come with some ideas and his top agenda is the intra-Afghan dialogue to deliver some tangible results and very soon,” he said.
He said the Taliban would not join an interim government, but was not opposed to one being formed.
“We would recommend people with a good reputation for the interim government and this set up would need to work for at least two years to depoliticize all the government departments, including the security establishment,” he said.
They could consider the reduction in violence, but not a cease-fire, the Taliban leader said, and had asked Khalilzad to pressure the Afghan government to release 7,000 more Taliban prisoners.
“We don’t believe any other conference in any country would help resolve the Afghan conflict,” he said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they had not yet seen the plan, but if an alternative to talks in Qatar was sought, “it is doomed to failure.”
Two sources said Khalilzad was expected to visit Islamabad, Pakistan, a key player in the peace process, on his trip.
The envoy was the architect under President Donald Trump’s administration of a February 2020 deal between Washington and the Taliban, which envisaged the Afghan government and Taliban negotiating a peace agreement and setting a final withdrawal of foreign forces by May 1.