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NATO nearing solution to continue Aegean migrant mission - UK general

A Turkish coast guard ship patrols in the Aegean Sea, off the Turkish coast, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/John MacDougall

By Andrea Shalal | BERLIN

BERLIN Turkey will likely hand off responsibility for NATO's counter-migration mission in the Aegean Sea, averting tensions with Greece, when it takes command of a broader maritime mission in the region next year, a top British general said on Wednesday.

"Because of Turkish-Greek sensitivities ... the likelihood is that the Turkish commander will command a bit of the group, but there'll be a subset that is commanded by one of his deputies to deal with the Aegean," General Gordon Messenger, vice chief of defence staff for Britain, told Reuters.

"Having a Turkish commander in such sensitive waters is a difficult thing for the Greeks," he said.

Diplomats have said that Turkey is unhappy about NATO ships moving about in waters that it and Greece have long contested and remains worried that Greece could gain the upper hand in a dispute about a group of Aegean islands.

An end to the NATO mission, which was agreed in February, may raise concerns in the European Union about a new influx from Turkey of refugees, many of them from Syria's civil war that has displaced some 11 million people.

The EU also has a deal with Turkey in which it provides billions of euros to Ankara so long as it keeps migrants on its territory. But Turkey has threatened to scrap the pact if the EU does not follow through soon on its pledges including visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Europe.

Germany and Britain, with U.S. support, see the presence of NATO ships patrolling the waters between historic rivals Greece and Turkey as a way to uphold the EU agreement with Turkey. NATO ships pass reconnaissance to Turkish and Greek coastguards and to the European Union border agency, Frontex.

Messenger declined comment on whether Germany, which currently holds the rotating command of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 in the Aegean, could retain responsibility for just the Aegean mission, or if another country would jump in.

Germany's vice chief of defence, Lieutenant General Markus Kneip, told Reuters that Germany would consider staying on to oversee the Aegean mission if asked to do by its NATO partners.

He declined comment on when the issue could be resolved, but it may come up when NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels next week.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Robin Emmott in Brussels; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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