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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greece, Turkey Call Off Forces in Island Feud

LONDON -- U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter Richard Holbrooke persuaded NATO allies Greece and Turkey to back away Wednesday from a potentially explosive standoff over a disputed cluster of rocks in the Aegean Sea.

Under heavy pressure from Washington, the governments in Athens and Ankara mutually agreed to withdraw forces they had sent to the islet after Greek commandos had landed to protect a Greek flag planted there.

Turkey immediately claimed victory in this latest confrontation between the bitter rivals in the eastern Mediterranean region.

"We said those soldiers would go, that flag would come down. As from today, those soldiers have gone and that flag has come down," Anatolian news agency quoted Prime Minister Tansu Ciller as saying.

For Greece, however, agreeing to pull back meant swallowing its pride. The socialist government of Premier Costas Simitis, sworn in only last week, had pledged Tuesday the flag would stay put. Simitis, a pragmatic technocrat, took a positive line in parliament, declaring: "The Greek government achieved a disengagement of Greek and Turkish forces around [the island of] Imia and a de-escalation of the crisis."

His comments were greeted with angry shouts of "traitors" and "sold-out" from conservative deputies.

"The removal of Greek troops and the lowering of the Greek flag constitute an act of treason," said New Democracy party leader Miltiadis Evert, who called on Simitis to resign.

The government was facing a confidence vote late Wednesday and, with the socialist party's big majority, it was expected to win comfortably. Nevertheless, some socialist deputies expressed disappointment over the agreement.

"Indeed there was a national humiliation and being a Greek citizen I don't like it," socialist deputy Alekos Damianidis told reporters.

The dispute erupted last week after Turkish journalists went to the rocks, which Turkey calls Kardak and Greece calls Imia, and replaced a Greek flag with a Turkish one.

Greece says the rocks, between the Turkish coast and the Greek island of Kalymnos, were ceded to it by Italy in 1947 along with the main islands of the Dodecanese off the Turkish coast. Ankara disputes this.

Turkey and Greece sent warships and fighter aircraft into the Aegean Sea and Tuesday the two forces were tailing each other around the rocks amid escalating tensions.

Alarmed, U.S. President Bill Clinton contacted both countries' leaders to encourage a peaceful resolution. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke also talked with Greek and Turkish officials.

Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, announcing the mutual pullback after a marathon cabinet meeting, said Holbrooke had been on the telephone to Athens and Ankara throughout the night. Pangalos said the withdrawal would be completed within a few hours and would be monitored by the United States.