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Greek PM says Turkish jets forced his helicopter to reduce altitude

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attends a student parade marking Greece’s Independence Day, during his visit on the island of Agathonisi, Greece March 25, 2019. Andrea Bonetti/Greek Prime Minister’s Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Turkish jets buzzed his helicopter as he was flying on Monday to a Greek island to mark the anniversary of the 1821 uprising against Ottoman rule, but Turkey said there was no attempt to intercept his flight.

“They forced the helicopter I was on to maneuver low until Greek jets intercepted the forces violating our national air space,” Tsipras said in a speech on the island of Agathonisi, a few miles from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

“The message I want to send them is that such foolish actions have no meaning, they spend their gasoline for nothing. We will always be there to defend our national integrity.”

A Greek military official told Reuters that Greek F-16 fighter jets intercepted the Turkish jets about four miles away from Tsipras’s helicopter.

A Turkish security source said the Turkish jets were conducting routine missions. “There has been no interception attempt by Turkish fighter jets during the Greek prime minister’s activity today,” the source said.

Though NATO allies, Turkey and Greece have long been at odds over issues ranging from ethnically split Cyprus to air space and overflight rights. Relations have worsened since Greece blocked the extradition of eight Turkish soldiers accused by Ankara of involvement in 2016’s failed military coup.

Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas in Athens and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson

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