ATHENS – For the first time since two Greek soldiers strayed across the border and were arrested in Turkey earlier in March, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted they won’t be released until Greece extradites eight Turkish soldiers seeking asylum after fleeing a failed coup against him in 2016.
The Turkish soldiers landed a helicopter in northern Greece, saying they feared for their lives and that they had no role in the coup but Erdogan has pressed Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for their return and the Greek leader said he opposes asylum for them but that Greece’s highest court has ruled against their extradition.
Once the Greek soldiers crossed the border, the scenario changed and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL), who are the junior partner in Tsipras’ Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition, said they are hostages.
That has irked Tsipras, who wants to treat Erdogan with kid gloves and hasn’t publicly pressed for the Greek soldiers return, saying it’s up to the Turkish justice system to deal with them amid reports that illegal entry charges could be upped to espionage and that they face up to five years in jail.
Both countries belong to NATO, which has said nothing about the Greek soldiers detention, nor constant invasions of Greek airspace and waters by Turkish fighter jets and warships, with the European Union that Turkey wants to join mostly on the sidelines and the United States and United Nations staying out of it.
At the EU-Turkish summit in Varna, Bulgaria, Erdogan raised the issue of the eight Turkish soldiers and Erdogan revealed details of his discussions to reporters on the plane back to Turkey after the summit, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet – an independent group being forced to sell to Erdogan interests – reported.
He said Turkey’s relations with both Greece and Cyprus were discussed as well as the issue of the two Greek soldiers but he said the courts he wants to influence have the last word on what happens to them.
“They told me ‘You are a big country, a big president, make sure the two soldiers are released’ and I told them that I am not bigger that the judiciary, that the case is being tried and we should await the verdict,” he said even though he has near-dictatorial powers.
“I told them that it’s not fair they are spending so much time on the Greek soldiers and not at all with the extradition of the eight Turkish soldiers who were involved in the coup and fled to Greece,” Erdogan added.
“Those who didn’t speak at all about this issue now speak about he need to free the two Greek soldiers,” SKAI reporter Manolis Kostidis quoted Erdogan as saying. “We do not see the two issues as related,” Erdogan added.
Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said after the Greek soldiers were taken into custody on March 2 that they would be imminently returned and that they weren’t hostages nor bargaining chips to force Greece to return the Turkish soldiers.
Previous such incidents, whereby military personnel of either side wandered into the territory of the other country, were resolved in a matter of hours and at the brigade level but the ante has been upped with the Turkish soldiers in Greece.
Even though ANEL leader Kammenos continues to say they are hostages, a Member of Parliament from his party was blistered for proposing the exchange Erdogan suggested and which Kammenos said the obvious aim of Turkey.
ANEL lawmaker Kostas Katsikis, appearing on SKAI TV, said that, “On the one hand, we say that we can’t intervene with the Greek justice system, but on the other hand, I don’t know if we could bypass the justice system and the two country achieve an exchange agreement.”
After being criticized, he said his views were personal and doesn’t reflect his party even though his party’s leader had said the same.