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After Release from Turkish Jail, Two Greek Soldiers Return Home

August 15, 2018

THESSALONIKI – Finally released after being held in Turkey since they accidentally crossed the border March 1 in bad weather, two Greek soldiers returned to greetings from political leaders and families eager to see them again.

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 Greece’s second-largest city.

“All I want to say is thank you,” Mitretodis told reporters.

Kammenos – who critics said had inflamed the dilemma by provoking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and claiming the soldiers were being held hostage to force Greece to return eight Turkish soldiers seeking asylum after fleeing a failed coup in July 2016 against the Turkish leader – said he phoned Turkey’s Defense Minister 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.” He is leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are junior partners in the coalition government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Radical Left SYRIZA.

Greece strongly protested their long detention in the western town of Edirne, arguing that they had strayed across during a patrol amid poor visibility due to bad weather and that soldiers on both sides who had done so before were quickly released.

Tsipras welcomed their release as “an act of justice,” and provided the jet he uses on official foreign journeys to bring them back.

“(Their release) will contribute to strengthening friendship, good neighborly relations and stability in the region,” Tsipras said in a statement as he was not there to greet them. “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.”

The men’s arrest had considerably strained Greek-Turkish relations as Erdogan wanted Tsipras to overrule Greek courts which had barred the extradition of the Turkish soldiers, saying their lives could be in danger.

Mitretodis’ father told the Associated Press 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.

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.”

While he didn’t make any formal announcement, US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt retweeted messages from the foreign ministry and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.

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.”

Greek soldiers Aggelos Mitretodis and Dimitros Kouklatzis after their arrival at the airport of the northern city of Thessaloniki , after spending months in a Turkish prison , early Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Fani Tripsani)

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