Israel Turkey US Naval Drills Conclude

ABOARD USS JOHN RODGERS (Reuters)–US–Israeli and Turkish warships completed a search-and-rescue exercise Wednesday that irate Arab states and Iran branded ominous and aggressive.

The day of maneuvers–under bright sunshine and in calm eastern Mediterranean seas off Israel’s Haifa port–illustrated deepening defense ties between the Middle East’s foremost military powers.

All three nations taking part in the exercise–dubbed "Reliant Mermaid," rejected the Arab and Iranian allegations–stressing the drill was non-combative and purely humanitarian.

"I would say without question that this exercise was a success," Captain Joseph Sestak Jr.–commander of the US Sixth Fleet battle force–told reporters aboard the destroyer the USS John Rodgers.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai invited anyone with objections to join the maneuvers–the first of their kind since the Jewish state and Moslem Turkey forged a military agreement in 1996.

"There is nothing here directed at any other country in the region or any other place," Mordechai told reporters aboard the Israeli missile ship Lahav. "I appeal to every country that wants to come and join and participate in these search-and-rescue exercises to come and do it here.

"Let’s hope in the future Syria and Greece will join us to have all those countries in the Mediterranean conduct joint exercises in the area," Mordechai said.

Syria–Iraq–Iran and Egypt all condemned the exercises–reflecting what analysts said were fears that Israel–Turkey and Jordan were moving towards a new strategic alliance.

Israel regards Iraq–Iran and Syria as implacable foes. Turkey has its own disputes with the three countries over water–territory and alleged support for Kurdish separatists–and an acrimonious relationship with Greece.

No shots were fired during the maneuvers witnessed by close to 100 journalists.

The drill involved five vessels – the US Sixth Fleet destroyer John Rodgers–the Lahav and another Israeli missile boat Nitzahon–and the Turkish frigates Yavuz and Zafer–as well as helicopters and an Israeli maritime patrol aircraft.

Jordan–which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994–sent a senior military officer to observe the exercise–in which participating vessels rehearsed life-saving procedures.

Each country was conducting its own version of an identical search-and-rescue operation for survivors of a yacht sending out a distress signal while en route from Cyprus to Israel.

Israeli yachts played the role of the vessels in distress–and dummies were thrown overboard as "survivors."

An Israeli missile boat commander–identified for security reasons only as Lieutenant-Colonel Ido–33–took the distress call to start the operation and conveyed the message over a radio to those on the Turkish and US ships.

"We have received a distress call for three yachts," Ido said in a message that launched a joint helicopter search. A short time later–ships from all three countries converged on the "troubled" yachts.

Petty Officer Second Class Juan Caro–a 32-year-old American diver in a black wetsuit and flippers–rescued two plastic dummies–a "man" and "woman."

The sole mishap: The woman’s left hand fell off while being handled by medics.

Asked about the significance of the joint US exercise with Israel and Turkey–Caro–from Puerto Rico–told reporters: "It doesn’t matter who it’s with. It’s a humanitarian exercise and we’re here to save lives."

The US commander said that last October both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates joined the United States–Britain–France and Italy in naval exercises in the Mediterranean which had helped contribute to stability in the region.

"I’m aware and have read some of the concerns that have been expressed but…this is really one of 80 to 100 exercises that we go through every year (in the Mediterranean and Black seas)," Sestak–46–told reporters.

The Israeli-Turkish alliance was launched in 1996 with an agreement allowing each country’s aircraft to train in the other’s airspace. The partnership also includes strategy talks and provisions for arms deals that could top $1 billion.

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