THESSALONIKI, Greece -- After weeks of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, Greece and Turkey have signaled a willingness to start talks aimed at resolving a long-standing sea dispute tied to potentially lucrative offshore gas deposits.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed the return of a Turkish survey ship to port Sunday from a disputed maritime area at the heart of the summer standoff over energy rights. Mitsotakis said he was ready to try to restart long-stalled talks, signaling that the two countries could be inching toward negotiations after weeks of increasingly bellicose rhetoric.
Exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey over the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone rights were last held in 2016. Turkey's Oruc Reis research ship returned to near the southern port of Antalya after more than a month after Turkey announced in July that it was dispatching a vessel to work in waters where Greece claims jurisdiction.
"This is a positive first step," Mitsotakis told reporters in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. "If we see signs of deescalation in practice ... I will be the first to sit at the negotiating table."
The deployment of the research vessel triggered a military buildup in the eastern Mediterranean. Nominal NATO allies Turkey and Greece both dispatched warships to the area where the Oruc Reis was engaged in seismic research and conducted military exercises to assert their claims.
NATO intervened, organizing talks between the two countries' militaries to stem the conflict. Turkey had also come under increasing international pressure to withdraw the survey ship, with the threat of European Union sanctions looming.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday expressed his concern about the situation on a visit to Cyprus.
"We remain deeply concerned about Turkey's ongoing operations searching for natural resources in areas over which Greece and Cyprus assert jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean," Pompeo said.
Turkey argues that Greek islands close to its coastline should not project maritime zones for oil-and-gas exploitation, a view not shared by most western allies. Although the dispute is decades old, huge offshore natural gas sites discovered in recent years have intensified the quarrel.
"Natural gas has changed the geopolitical dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean maritime boundary disputes," said Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. "Turkey views its future political and economic influence across the entire Mediterranean region and in Africa as being at stake."
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Sunday that Turkey supports peace and dialogue "if our wishes and demands are fulfilled." He spoke on a visit to Antalya's district of Kas, and later accused Greece of damaging efforts for talks with its military buildup on eastern Aegean Sea islands.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was visiting the Greek island of Kastellorizo, directly across the Mediterranean from Kas, at the same time.
In response to the standoff with Turkey, Greece on Saturday announced a major new defense program that includes plans to buy 18 French-made Rafale fighter planes. It also plans to buy four navy helicopters and four new frigates, and to add 15,000 military personnel to its armed forces by 2025.
Information for this article was contributed by Costas Kantouris, Zeynep Bilginsoy and Derek Gatopoulos of The Associated Press; and by Sotiris Nikas of Bloomberg News.