ATHENS – Some 5 ½ months after they accidentally stepped across the border while in patrol in bad weather – and were arrested and detained in a Turkish jail without being charged, two Greek soldiers were back with their families with questions swirling as to why.
The soldiers – 2nd Lieutenant Angelos Mitretodis and Sergeant Dimitris Kouklatzis – were met by Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the Army Chief of Staff and an honor guard after their arrival Aug. 15 at 3 a.m. at the airport in Thessaloniki.
“All I want to say is thank you,” Mitretodis told reporters before both were allowed to go to their families following medical exams to check their well-being. They were flown back to Greece on a plane that Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras uses for international flights.
Mitretodis’ father told the AP that his son had shown great strength in prison.
“My wife phoned and told me the news, and at once I called the Greek consul (in Edirne) and confirmed that the lads have been set free,” Nikos Mitretodis said. “They didn’t do anything wrong, and they spent a long time in prison. But they were strong during all that time, and remain strong, they have to be.”
“I want to thank everyone for their solidarity — the media, our political leadership, the Church and anonymous people who stood by us,” he added.
Mitretodis’ father told the Associated Press his son had shown great strength in prison.
The release was seen as easing tensions between the countries even though Greece – as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded – did not return eight Turkish soldiers seeking asylum after fleeing a failed coup against him in July, 2016.
Kammenos said the Greek soldiers were arrested on Erdogan’s orders and held hostage to force the return of the Turkish soldiers that had been barred by Greece’s highest court after no evidence was presented they took part in the overthrow attempt and that their lives would be in danger if they were extradited.
Under intense economic pressure after a doubling of tariffs on steel by the United States sent the lira plunging, speculation abounded as to why Erdogan let the Greek soldiers go without apparently getting a quid pro quo.
Ioannis Michaletos, a terrorism and security analyst at the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analysis told The National Herald that Erdogan may have been playing a wild card hand and positioning himself to gain favor from the European Union and find other allies.
“Erdogan wants to ‘neutralize’ Greece’s hard stance vis-a-vis Turkey at the same time he has such big trouble with Washington. He is buying time for his next movies,” Michaletos said.
He said the that Emir of Qatar visited Ankara and promised $15 billion in investments to help shore up Turkey’s economy that was taking a hammering after US President Donald Trump, upset that Turkey won’t release a US pastor, Donald Brunson, ordered the tariff hike on steel.
“Erdogan is trying to play all the cards in his hand and Greece got lucky,” Michaletos said.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Kammenos said he phoned his Turkish counterpart to express his satisfaction with the soldiers’ release and invite him to visit Greece.
“I hope that their release … will herald a new day in Greek-Turkish relations,” Kammenos told reporters. “We can live together peacefully, for the benefit of both our peoples.”
Tsipras welcomed their release as “an act of justice,” and provided the jet he uses on official foreign journeys to bring them back.
He is leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are junior partners in the coalition government led by Tsipras’ SYRIZA.
“(Their release) will contribute to strengthening friendship, good neighborly relations and stability in the region,” Tsipras said in a statement. “I want to congratulate and thank (the two men) and their families for their fortitude, patience and trust in our efforts, which were finally justified.”
John Sitilides, a geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors LLC in Washington DC told The National Herald that Erdogan may be playing a tricky inside-out game and indeed, even if feigned, show some statesmanship and brinksmanship at the same time to play off the EU and the US simultaneously
“As the U.S.-Turkey relationship continues to deteriorate, Turkey will seek to strengthen EU relations into a more strategic partnership. This could be the impetus for improving relations – for now – with Greece, beginning with the release of the soldiers, even as many American citizens remain detained in Turkey,” he said.
“Ankara retains the leverage of three million Middle Eastern economic migrants and war refugees who yearn for Europe but must remain in Turkey. President Erdogan can maximize that leverage with Brussels to secure EU cash and other financial aid, and avoid the severe austerity and tight U.S. scrutiny of an IMF assistance package that decimates his political support base,” he added.
The men landed on a major religious and military day for Greece, noted by Kammenos. “This is a great day for our motherland, the day of Our Lady, the day of Tinos in 1940,” Kammenos told reporters, referring to the Feast of the Dormation, which falls on August 15 and to the Italian torpedoing on a Greek warship on this day in 1940, media reports said, including from Reuters.
The Greek Foreign Ministry said: “We welcome the release of the two members of the Greek armed forces … following more than five months of unjustified custody in Edirne prison. This decision by the Turkish authorities is positive and will contribute to the improvement of Greek-Turkish relations and the friendship between our people.
“The constant efforts exerted by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Ministry and the diplomatic and consular missions of Greece in Turkey have borne fruit. Once again diplomacy is the biggest winner.”
There was no indication whether their release by a court in Turkey was tied to Erdogan having to face a growing economic crisis after the United States doubled tariffs on Turkish steel, sending the lira plunging and businesses under pressure.
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos said the release “on the one hand constitutes a basic act of justice on the part of the Turkish authorities. On the other hand, it shows how Turkey can and should continue to fully reestablish the climate of friendship and good neighborliness with Greece”.
Main opposition New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “The release of the two Greek officers is happy news amid the gloomy summer that our country is experiencing. All Greeks await their return with joy and emotion.”
US Ambassador also tweeted congratulations as the US stayed out of the growing tensions between Greece and Turkey, two NATO members, even as Erdogan continued to send fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters. Only a couple of days before the soldiers were released, Greek fishermen said they were being stalked in Greek waters in the Aegean by the Turkish Coast Guard and that shots were fired from a Turkish fishing boat to scare them away.
In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted that, “As I said (before) … Turkey has nothing to fear from its European neighbors. We want to see a democratic, stable and prosperous Turkey.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)