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New Greek nationalist defense minister prompts Turkey to scramble jets

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece’s new nationalist defense minister prompted Greece’s perennial rival Turkey to scramble jets on Friday, just days after he took office, by flying over uninhabited islets off the Turkish coast that nearly triggered a war in 1996.

Turkish fighter jets entered Greek airspace and were intercepted by Greek jets as Defence Minister Panos Kammenos and military chiefs flew by helicopter to the islet of Imia to drop wreaths in memory of three Greek officers killed nearby in a helicopter crash 19 years ago, the Greek Defence Ministry said.

Kammenos heads the small, right-wing, Eurosceptical Independent Greeks party, and the episode underlines the risk that its unlikely coalition with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s leftwing Syriza party, winner of last week’s election, will come under strain on issues not related to their shared desire to end Greece’s austerity program.

Imia, known in Turkish as Kardak, lies just seven km (four miles) off the Turkish coast. Greece and Turkey, both members of NATO, have long disputed its sovereignty and, in 1996, came close to war over the islets.

“The reason the defense minister went there was to show his patriotism and to honor those who died there,” Independent Greeks party spokeswoman Marina Chysoveloni said. “No one had ever done this in the last 19 years.”

Ankara did not confirm its aircraft had entered Greek airspace. “All the necessary precautions were taken by our side but, as our airspace has not been violated, there is no need for a reaction,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

Although they share opposition to the terms of Greece’s bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, Syriza and the Independent Greeks stand far apart on issues ranging from religion to questions of national identity.

In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Sabah, Tsipras said he wanted to develop closer cooperation with Turkey.

He is also due on Monday to visit the island of Cyprus, ethnically divided since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 in response to a brief Greek-inspired nationalist coup.

Greece irritated some of its EU partners this week by seeming ambiguous about extending sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, before eventually smoothing ruffled feathers.

Reporting by George Georgiopoulos,; additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Kevin Liffey