ANKARA (AFP)–Greek and Turkish F-16 fighter jets collided in mid-air over the eastern Aegean Sea–an area where the two NATO allies often engage in mock dog fights amid disputes over their airspace control–both sides said.
Turkey announced that the Greek pilot died while the Turkish pilot ejected and was rescued by a Panama-registered cargo ship before being repatriated by a Turkish army helicopter.
The two sides gave different accounts of the accident which occurred some 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of the Greek island of Rhodes–with the Turkish army saying that the collision took place in international airspace and the Greek army charging that the planes were in airspace overseen by Athens.
But officials from the two countries rushed to underline that they would not let the incident affect bilateral ties which have improved significantly in recent year.
The Turkish army said the two jets had collided when Greek warplanes attempted to intercept Turkish jets on "routine training flights" in international air space.
The Greek armed forces–however–said the collision took place in the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR)–the flight zone overseen by the Athens airport control tower.
They said in a statement that a Turkish RF-4 and two F-16s entered the Athens FIR "without laying down flight plans" and heading towards the island of Crete–"violating the rules of aerial navigation."
A formation of two Greek F-16s then took off to "investigate the planes and assure the security of international traffic," it said.
During a "reconnaissance maneuver" a Greek F-16 and a Turkish F-16 collided at an altitude of 27,000 feet (8,230 meters) and the planes crashed–the statement said.
But Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul denied the Greek charges.
"The incident took place in international airspace. Furthermore our flight was a scheduled flight. It had been conveyed in advance to NATO," he told reporters in Ankara–the Anatolia news agency reported.
Turkey says its planes flying over the Aegean hand over flight plans to NATO prior to take-off and have posted their electronic in-flight identification since October 2001.
It says Greece does not reciprocate such measures.
Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis and her Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul spoke by telephone and expressed regret over the incident–saying it should not affect relations–the two foreign ministries said.
"In their talks–the two ministers were unanimous on shedding light on the incident and not allowing it to affect bilateral ties," the Turkish statement said.
Despite a significant thaw in ties in recent years–Turkey and Greece remain at odds over territorial rights in the Aegean–accusing each other of violations.
Athens has long complained of frequent violations of its air space by Turkish aircraft. Turkey–however–says its planes fly in international air space.
Greece claims a 10-mile air space limit around its coastline but Turkey only recognizes six miles–arguing that under international rules Greece’s airspace should be the same as its territorial waters.
Turkey is under European Union pressure to resolve territorial disputes with Greece–a bloc member.
In 1996–the two neighbors nearly went to war over an uninhabited rocky islet in the Aegean–but the United States stepped in and defused the tension.
After decades of animosity–ties notably improved after 1999 when deadly earthquakes in the two countries triggered an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity between their people.
Diplomats from both countries have engaged in closed-door talks since January 2002 to try to resolve their disputes but no concrete result has been publicly announced so far.
But the two neighbors disagree even about the extent of the dispute.
While Greece claims the only issue to be dealt with is that of continental shelf rights–Turkey says there is a plethora of problems ranging from the boundaries of territorial waters to the status of islands whose sovereignty remains unclear.