BALIKESIR AIR BASE, Turkey – For decades, Turkish warplanes have fought high-speed mock dogfights against Greek jets flying over disputed territory, a show of strength that each side used to intimidate the other and hone battle skills.
On Saturday, the Turkish air force carried out a new mission: welcoming the first Greek warplanes to visit a Turkish air base in at least three decades. The visit is part of a remarkable thaw in Turkish-Greek relations that began last year, when both sides sent aid to each other after devastating earthquakes.
Six gray and sky-blue Greek F-16 warplanes touched down at Balikesir in northwest Turkey, the country’s main air base facing Greece.
The 8-year-old daughter of a Turkish pilot welcomed Greek commander Lt. Col. George Vlassopoulos with a bouquet of flowers. Vlassopoulos thanked her with a kiss on each cheek.
The Greek warplanes came to Turkey to join NATO’s Destined Glory-2000 exercises, which will involve some 21,000 soldiers and sailors from seven countries: Greece, Turkey, the United States, Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy. The vast majority of the personnel will be on 70 ships taking part in the maneuvers.
Turkey hosts the exercises but an American officer, Vice Adm. Gregory Johnson, is in command.
The exercises start Monday with submarine maneuvers off the Turkish coast.
Thanos Dokos, a military expert at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens, said Saturday marks the first time Greek fighters have landed in Turkey since the 1960s.
The pilots will “probably have a beer together” and recall the dogfights, he joked.
But, he added, “there are still suspicions. After years of rivalries and tensions it would be naive to think that things will change after … six months or a year.”
Greek soldiers will arrive in Turkey on Monday to take part in landing maneuvers. Turkish soldiers and aircraft participated in similar military exercises earlier this year in Greece.
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