The fighter intercepts stem from a long-running row between the two countries over territorial claims in the Aeagean Sea. Credit: Protothema.

Greek air force pilots scrambled to intercept Turkish fighter planes that illegally entered Greece’s airspace 40 times in a single day this week as tensions soared between the NATO allies over a territorial dispute in the eastern Mediterranean, Stars & Stripes reported.

Fighter jets from the two countries on Tuesday engaged in 16 mock dogfights following multiple Turkish incursions into Greek airspace, defense officials in Athens told Greece’s Kathimerini newspaper.

Dogfights between the two NATO members are relatively commonplace and risky. Turkish jets and helicopters illegally entered Greek airspace 141 times on a single day in May 2017, the Hellenic National Defence General Staff said. Several Greek pilots have been killed in aviation accidents while intercepting Turkish jets in Greek airspace.

The fighter intercepts stem from a long-running row between the two countries over territorial claims in the Aeagean Sea. Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos recently said the disputed area is under Greek military control, Kathimerini reported.

Among the issues disputed by the two NATO members are delimitation of territorial waters, airspace, exclusion zones and Turkish claims of sovereignty over a number of small islands off its southwestern coast.

Turkey could send military forces into the eastern Mediterranean and place armed drones in northern Cyprus over the territorial disputes, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said in parliament Tuesday.

“If necessary, Turkey sends troops, drills in the east Mediterranean and launches cross-border operations. It does whatever is required,” Oktay was quoted by Turkey’s Ahval newspaper as saying.

The US has enhanced military ties with Athens as tensions have risen, not only between Turkey and Greece but also between Washington and Ankara.

In October, Greece and the US updated their defense cooperation pact, pledging to increase American troop rotations and joint exercises at several military sites in Greece, and to make infrastructure upgrades at the Navy’s longtime base at Souda Bay.

The moves come as Ankara threatens to cut off US access to Incirlik Air Base if Washington moves ahead with sanctions over Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria and its acquisition of a Russian missile system. A US Senate committee last week backed legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey.

Meanwhile, Greece plans to buy drones from the US and Israel that could be used to monitor Turkish maneuvers in the Mediterranean. Greece needs more surveillance capabilities in light of a maritime border deal recently struck between Turkey and Libya, Panagiotopoulos said in a speech to the Greek parliament this week. The European Union has said the border deal violates international law.

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