Greek soldiers Aggelos Mitretodis, left, and Dimitros Kouklatzis, second left chat with relatives after their arrival at the airport of the the northern city of Thessaloniki , after spending months in a Turkish prison , early Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. The men were arrested on March 1, 2018 for illegally entering Turkey after crossing the heavily militarized land border. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has hailed the decision as "an act of justice" that will help boost friendship between the two historic regional rivals.(Yannis Moisiadis /InTime News via AP)

2 Greek soldiers released from Turkish jail return to Greece

August 14, 2018 - 9:42 pm

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Two Greek soldiers freed after months in a Turkish prison returned to their home country by government jet early Wednesday after their unexpected release eased tensions between the neighbors and historical rivals.

Defense Minister Panos 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."

The soldiers, an army junior officer and a sergeant, were met by Kammenos, the army chief of staff and an honor guard after their arrival before dawn at the airport in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

"All I want to say is thank you,"2nd Lieutenant Angelos Mitretodis told reporters.

The men were arrested on March 1 for illegally entering Turkey after crossing the heavily militarized land border. 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.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis 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. "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. Kammenos, the defense minister, had claimed that they were being held "hostage" by Turkey, which is trying to secure the extradition of eight Turkish servicemen who fled to Greece after the 2016 failed military coup in Turkey.

Ankara accuses its servicemen of involvement in the coup, but Greek courts have refused to extradite them, arguing they would not get a fair trial in Turkey and their lives would be in danger there.

The two Greeks were released Tuesday pending the outcome of their trial by a Turkish court. Turkey's state Anadolu Agency said that in a court hearing to review a request for their release the two said in their defense that they had crossed the border by mistake.

2nd Lieutenant 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.


Paphitis reported from Athens. AP writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.


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