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US News In the eastern Mediterranean, aboard a French frigate on the lookout

14:55  30 october  2020
14:55  30 october  2020 Source:   lepoint.fr

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In the bowels of a French frigate cruising in the eastern Mediterranean, a dozen sailors, plunged into darkness, scrutinize the radar consoles. Among the red squares indicating the position of ships, the Turkish exploration vessels Oruc Reis and Barbaros.

For three months, the stealth frigate La Fayette has been patrolling this strategic space, between the Syrian, Greek and Cypriot coasts. Its 170 crew members are keeping their eyes open and ears strained, as the discovery of huge gas fields has raised the tension a notch in recent months between Athens and Ankara, at odds over their maritime borders.

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The France , headlong against Turkish incursions into Greek and Cypriot territorial waters, is counting on the continued presence of its navy in "Medor" to know what is being played there, but also to send messages: as soon as it is Arriving in August, La Fayette participated in an exercise with the Greece , Cyprus and the Italy , to show a united European front against Ankara.

In a sea where each actor plays his score without complex, "our primary mission is to observe everything that happens, to offer our leaders and the political authorities an autonomous assessment of the situation", explains the head of the operations group. La Fayette, lieutenant Mathieu, who supervises the nerve center of the boat: the "CO", or central operations.

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It is in this dark and cramped room, with strictly restricted access, that the classified information collected by the boat's sensors arrives: air and surface radars, infrared camera to track ships or aircraft at night and by day " of interest ", even submarines brought up to the surface, instruments of war making it possible to identify enemy electromagnetic emissions in addition to radars.

The frigate thus enjoys an overview of the eastern Mediterranean basin at all times.

"Avoiding the mistake"

The screens show a British warship in Limassol (Cyprus), Russians near the Syrian ports of Tartous and Latakia, but also the Turkish ship Oruc Reis on an exploration mission between the Greek islands of Kastellorizo ​​and Rhodes, despite protests from Athens. Or the Turkish seismic prospecting building Barbaros, in southwestern Cyprus, escorted by two civilian boats to protect its huge cables equipped with microphones.

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"Their system has been lightened in recent weeks. We are checking that it will not re-inflate at one time or another", comments the commander of the frigate, Captain Sébastien Martinot.

On this type of mission, "we come to shed some light on an area where it is necessary more than ever to have the exact facts to be able to judge, avoid misunderstanding, and not depend on rumors, social networks, or even information from our allies, ”he argues.

During these three months at sea, "we have never watched so much the Turks", comments the second master Liès on the deck bathed in sunshine, from where we can see the Lebanese coast. "We have crossed them so many times that we know which ships are protecting them. But we do not intervene, it is not our role."

A "confrontation space"

At its side, the "ODB" ("order of battle") catalog, a laminated document holder of several dozen pages, brings together photos and identity of all the boats of interest crossed by the frigate.

At the rear of the ship, the Panther helicopter is about to take off. "We are equipped with high-performance sensors that can be moved several tens of nautical miles from the boat, to which the information is transmitted live," explains Lieutenant (Navy) Denis, head of the Panther detachment. “Our photos often end up in the staffs,” he smiles.

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All the information collected is sent daily to the French commander of the Mediterranean military zone (CECMED), at Toulon . They are shared with the international anti-jihadist operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria as well as with the European operation Irini, responsible for monitoring compliance with the UN embargo against Libya.

But it is less systematic with NATO, of which Turkey is a part, admits the command of the ship.

Last summer, Paris temporarily withdrew from the NATO maritime security operation "Sea Guardian" in the Mediterranean, after denouncing the "extremely aggressive" behavior of a Turkish ship against a French frigate under the mandate of the Alliance, during an attempt to check a cargo ship suspected of carrying weapons to Libya.

"When I joined the Navy, the sea was seen as a projection space, today it has become a space for confrontation," notes Captain Martinot.

"The Medor is an exciting and worrying theater. We will have to continue to be present in order to promote European interests and freedom of navigation".

10/30/2020 11:08:58 - On board a French frigate in the Eastern Mediterranean (AFP) - © 2020 AFP

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