Continuing pressure on Greece, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said eight Turkish soldiers seeking asylum are “terrorists” and unless they are returned he warned it could severely impact relations between the countries.
The men fled a July, 2016 failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which they denied taking part and were recently released in Athens after serving a maximum 18-month detention period but were said to be under guard by 80 riot police at a military barracks after Bozdag said Turkey could kidnap them.
Turkey wants to put them on trial but their extradition has been barred by Greece’s highest court which said their lives would be in danger with Erdogan mulling return of the death penalty and having purged civil society and the military after the failed overthrow attempt.
He’s also keeping two Greek soldiers who accidentally strayed across the border while on patrol in bad weather on March 1 in an area where Turkey lets human traffickers sent refugees and migrants into Greece.
The Greek soldiers, said Erdogan, are essentially hostages and bargaining chips to force return of the Turkish soldiers he said Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras promised him would be swiftly returned after they landed a helicopter in northern Greece and asked for sanctuary.
Tsipras though said the court has prohibited their extradition although he opposes asylum for them. Erdogan wants him to overrule the court at the same time the Turkish leader he can’t interfere with his country’s judicial system to release the Greek soldiers.
Seeking re-election in snap June 24 polls he called in a bid to strengthen his mandate after a post-coup referendum gave him near-dictatorial powers, Erdogan has used the case of the soldiers in both countries to ramp up populist rhetoric and send fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters repeatedly, almost bringing an accidental conflict.
Bozdag charged Greece is interrogating the Turkish soldiers to gain military intelligence against Turkey and said they were not patriots.
The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, joined in the ruckus against Greece in a campaign video of his party which depicted Cyprus as belonging to Turkey.
Greece and Turkey as well as the United Kingdom, the former Colonial ruler which still has a military base there, are guarantors of security over the island which has been divided since Turkey seized the northern third in an unlawful 1974 invasion.
“Why are they [Greece] upset? How else could we have depicted [Cyprus]. I say again and stress that Cyprus is Turkish. It’s a Turkish homeland and it will remain Turkish,” he said and warned Greece not to play “games” in the Aegean and not to forget what happened in the Greek-Turkish war “when [the Greeks] were thrown into the sea.”
“The will for the Aegean to again become a grave for Greek aspiration is still alive,” he said.