Greece’s leftist-led coalition government has asked United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as well as the European Union and NATO to help broker the release of two soldiers who said they accidentally crossed the border into Turkey while patrolling in bad weather but are being held for trial.
Trying to take a low-key approach so as not to antagonize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is furious Greece won’t return eight soldiers who fled a failed coup against him in 2016 and are seeking asylum, Greece made appeals to the international community.
Both countries are members of NATO, which hasn’t said a word about the incident, nor about repeated violations of Greek airspace and waters by Turkish fighter jets and warships, and as Turkey’s Navy is blocking foreign energy research company vessels from reaching Cypriot waters where they are licensed to drill.
Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, who said after the border crossing incident on March 1 that the return of the soldiers would be routine and swift, now said he’s not so sure how long they will be held but still thinks it won’t be long.
Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, who hosted Erdogan in December 2017 for talks that were supposed to cool tensions but failed, reached out to Guterres, who hasn’t said anything and who failed to help broker a unity deal on Cyprus after talks collapsed in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana.
A Turkish court refused to release the two soldiers, who are charged with illegally entering a prohibited military zone but not – so far – espionage, a charge that could spike anxiety between the countries who nearly came to blows after a Turkish vessel rammed a Greek Coast Guard boat off the rocky, disputed islets of Imia where they almost went to war in 1996 after three Greek servicemen died in a mysterious helicopter crash.
Speaking at an informal cabinet meeting, Tsipras, who has been reluctant to confront Erdogan, apparently fearful Turkey will unleash more refugees and migrants on Greek islands, said the Turkish leader will “sooner or later” realize that trying to exploit the incident, which has happened before but led to easy resolution, wouldn’t work, said Kathimerini. Tsipras, it was said, doesn’t want a full-blown diplomatic standoff.
Tzanakopoulos said Greece “must respect the legal procedure that Turkey is following” after predicting the men’s swift return, but said it would be “extreme” if more serious charges were added and a major trial developed.
Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias is expected to send a verbal note to the Turkish Ambassador although Erdogan has the last word on what will happen as he got near-dictatorial powers in the wake of the coup and is trying to control the courts and media.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of SYRIZA’s junior coalition partner the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) had been left to take on Erdogan and constantly provoked the Turkish leader over other incidents and asked the EU and NATO to intervene although it was unclear what good that would do.
Kammenos said in Brussels that the soldiers, a lieutenant and a sergeant, were arrested a “few meters” inside Turkish territory while on a patrol against migrant smuggling. He briefed European Union defense ministers.
Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs and security chief, said the EU continued to advise Turkey to show “good neighborly relations” and hoped for a “swift and positive outcome” to the incident.
The arrests have further strained relations between the two NATO allies who have long-standing disputes over maritime boundaries and commercial rights.
Speaking in Brussels during a regular press briefing, Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas – who is Greek – referred to an “incident on the border between Greece and Turkey which resulted in the arrest of two officers of the Hellenic Army, now imprisoned and awaiting trial in Turkey.
“We, in the Commission, hope for a swift and positive outcome of this issue in a spirit of good neighborly relations, as should always be the case between two close neighbors who are also members of NATO,” Schinas said.
Mogherini, said the EU continues to advise Turkey – a long-time candidate country – to show “good neighborly relations”, while she expressed a hope for a “swift and positive outcome,” the business newspaper Naftemporiki said.
Major opposition New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the detention of the Greek soldiers was “unacceptable” and slammed the government for “underestimating” the seriousness of the issue as well as the tension in Greek-Turkish relations.
FLAG WAVING, BURNING
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry also demanded that Greece arrest people who burned a Turkish flag at a rally in Athens.
“We strongly condemn the burning of our flag during a rally against Turkey organized by a racist political party in Athens on March 5,” the Foreign Ministry said in a written statement, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.
“We demand that the Greek authorities arrest the perpetrators, who committed this heinous act against our flag, and bring them to justice as soon as possible,” it added.
That came as Turkey also assailed Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos who Ankara said questioned borders between the country – which Turkey doesn’t recognize as Erdogan has rejected the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and covets return of some Greek islands.
Pavlopoulos, during a ceremony naming him an honorary resident of the Municipality of Pydna-Kolindros in Pieria, northern Greece, said: “We might not have the territory that we should have had historically… If history compels us, we will do what our ancestors had done,” Anadolu said. He added that Greece has a voice and standing in the European Union,” which Turkey has been trying to join for more than a decade.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said, “We invite President Pavlopoulos to respect international law and our borders, and to refrain from a rhetoric which is not befitting his position, and that could cause unnecessary tension,” “which ramped up.
Greece, the president said, wants to have “good neighborly relations” with Turkey and supports the country’s European ambitions but only if Turkey shows “full respect for the totality of international and European law… and particularly the Treaty of Lausanne and the Law of the Sea.”
Pavlopoulos referred to Turkey’s demands to review the treaty that set borders between the countries which Turkey recognizes only in its favor and Turkey’s refusal to recognize Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and blocking foreign energy companies from drilling in sovereign Cypriot wates.
“We do not want to, but if history compels us, we will act as our ancestors did,” Pavlopoulos added, referring to Greece’s legendary resistance to the Ottoman Occupation that lasted four centuries before the Turks were driven out.
Asoy shot back that, “We invite President Pavlopoulos to refrain from a rhetoric which is not befitting his position, and that could cause unnecessary tension,” as the war of words began being stepped up between the countries.
In a separate incident that added to the political pressure cooker, a Turkish extradition request for the second of nine Turkish citizens who were arrested on terror charges in Athens days before a visit by Erdogan was rejected by a Greek court.
Turkey has sought the extradition of Naci Ozpolat, 48, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin, on charges of assisting a terrorist organization. He was one of nine people arrested late last year for alleged links to the left-wing Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union deem a terrorist organization.
Prosecutor Ourania Stathea recommended the court reject the extradition request on grounds there were risks of Ozpolat being tried in Turkey for offenses besides the ones listed on the extradition request.
After the hearing, Ozpolat returned to jail, where he is being held on Greek charges of possessing explosives. He has alleged that Turkey’s extradition request is politically motivated since he opposes the government there.
He said he was imprisoned in Turkey during 1990-2002 for his political activity, and in 2004-2006.
Earlier this year, a Greek court rejected a similar extradition request for the first of the nine on the grounds that France had been granted him refugee status. The court said he was at risk of torture or other inhumane treatment, if he were returned to Turkey.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)