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Athens In Starring Role Of Greek Tragedy

Prague, Mar 4 (RFE/RL) - Greece's relations with its neighbors as well as with its European Union (EU) and NATO partners have worsened on all fronts in recent weeks, further increasing tensions in southeastern Europe.

After Greece and Turkey backed off from open conflict in January in a dispute over uninhabited islets in the Aegean, many had hoped calm would return to the region. But bitter rhetoric has continued to emanate from Athens, backed up by hostile action.

Last week, Greece's Prime Minister Costas Simitis announced that Greece will block EU funds for Turkey and "not cooperate in the Customs Union agreement as long as Turkish aggressiveness persists." Greece last month blocked a 375-million ECU (490-million dollar) aid package to help Turkey adjust to a Customs Union with the EU that came into effect this year. Over the weekend, Athens said it would block a second grant of 750-million ECU (940-million dollars).

Athens had held up Turkey's Customs Union agreement with the EU for 14 years, finally relenting last year. But now Greece has said it will block all EU aid to Turkey until Ankara settles its dispute with Athens. But while Turkey has offered to hold bi-lateral talks with Greece, Athens wants the EU to affirm that the borders of member states with third countries are borders of the whole union. Thus, says Athens, there can be no bi-lateral negotiations, and Turkey must take its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Yet, while Greece seeks to win the backing of the EU in its dispute with Turkey, its own relations with two EU members hit new lows last week, as Athens demanded that Italy and the Netherlands recall their military attaches on suspicion of spying.

A Greek government spokesman said the two attaches, who have diplomatic status, where caught on the island of Lesbos, carrying notes about the movement of Greek warships in the area. The two attaches were detained last month, at the time of Greece's naval standoff with Turkey.

The Dutch government sought to downplay the incident, but Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo told Dutch television there was "no question" of the Netherlands spying on its NATO allies, adding, "Greece knows that very well." Italy also denied the allegations. Both countries have temporarily recalled their attaches, while they seek further explanation from Athens.

Meanwhile, tensions in Cyprus increased over the weekend after Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash said people missing since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus must be presumed dead. Turkey occupied the northern half of Cyprus following an Athens-inspired coup in Nicosia in 1974. The Turkish Cypriots then created a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on their half of the island, which has only been recognized by Ankara. Denktash told Greek Cypriot television that some Greek Cypriots had been killed by vengeful Turkish Cypriot captors. He said that as the Turkish army advanced in 1974, some captured Greek Cypriots were handed to the Turkish Cypriot militia. Denktash said, "Instead of taking them to police stations and prison camps, they were killed."

The Greek government promptly branded Denktash a "war criminal" and said his remarks were "new proof of the bestiality" of the Turkish invasion.

Lastly, Greece's relations with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia remain stalled. Talks ended last month in failure, after each side failed to reach agreement on a permanent official name for Macedonia. Greece remains opposed to the former Yugoslav republic's use of the name "Macedonia," arguing that it implies territorial claims against the northern Greek province bearing the same name.

These are difficult times for Greece, which feels neglected as NATO and the Eu focus attention away from southern Europe towards Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Turkey, which is seeking to play a major role in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet empire, has increasingly grated on Athens' sensitive nerves. Observers say tensions are unlikely to boil over, since both Greece and Turkey are so dependent on their alliance with Europe and the United States. but tensions are likely to keep diplomats shuttling around the region for quite some time to come.