Greece Angrily Rejects Erdoğan’s Proposed Soldier Swap
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has sparked anger with a proposal that two Greek border guards detained in the country since March be exchanged for eight Turkish officers who have sought asylum in Greece.
Only days after calling snap elections, Erdoğan raised the prospect of an exchange deal, saying Ankara could return the soldiers if Athens extradited the eight officers first. “If they are handed to us, we will consider [Greece’s request],” the leader told NTV channel at the weekend, publicly linking the two cases for the first time.
He insisted that the Turkish servicemen had deliberately fled to the EU member state after participating in Turkey’s failed coup in July 2016, and said Ankara had already made the offer to Greece. Despite rising tensions between the two nations, Turkey wanted good relations with its neighbour, he claimed.
“They’ve asked us to give back the Greek soldiers and we’ve told them ‘if you make such a demand, you should first give us the FETO soldiers involved in the coup against our state,’” he said. The term FETO is a government acronym to describe the movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdoğan’s administration has accused Gulen of orchestrating the attempted coup.
On Sunday, the Greek president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, rejected the offer out of hand while Athens’ defence minister, Panos Kammenos, said it provided further proof that the two men were being held as “hostages”.
Sgt Dimitris Kouklatzis, aged 27, and Lt Angelos Mitretodis, 25, were arrested after being found in a “forbidden military zone” by Turkish authorities in early March. They have been detained in a high-security jail pending trial in the border town of Edirne ever since.
Athens’ military command has argued the two accidentally strayed across the land border after getting lost in bad weather. The eight Turkish soldiers sought protection in Greece immediately after the attempted coup, landing their helicopter outside the northern town of Alexandroupolis. They deny involvement in the putsch.
Repeated requests for their extradition have been turned down, with Greece’s highest court ruling that the men would not receive a fair trial if they were to return home. On Thursday, the tribunal went further still by approving the release from custody of one of the eight.
The Greek president described the idea of an exchange as “inconceivable”.
“It is truly regrettable that there should be such confusion between soldiers who are being held arbitrarily and Turkish citizens who have been granted political asylum in accordance with the rules of international law,” Pavlopoulos said.
Tensions between the Nato rivals have risen dramatically in recent months with disputes over isles and airspace in the Aegean Sea. Last week the European parliament called on Turkey to release the Greek soldiers. In a resolution adopted with an overwhelming majority, MEPs said accidental border crossings in the past had been settled “on the spot” by military authorities on both sides of the border separating the two countries.