Two Greek soldiers return home after Turkey release

Thessaloniki (Greece) (AFP) –


Two Greek soldiers held in a Turkish prison for more than five months on espionage charges landed home early Wednesday, after a court ordered their release.

The two had been detained since March for illegally crossing the border in a case that has stoked tensions between Athens and Ankara.

Lieutenant Aggelos Mitretodis and Sergeant Dimitros Kouklatzis told prosecutors shortly after their arrest that they mistakenly crossed the border after getting lost in the fog.

The case added to a long list of troubles between Turkey and Greece which, though both NATO members since 1952, have tense relations.

On Tuesday, Turkish media reported that a court in Edirne region had ruled that the two soldiers would now be tried without being held in detention.

Greek officials promptly travelled by plane to Turkey to collect the soldiers.

The pair, dressed in their uniforms, arrived at Thessaloniki airport in the early hours of Wednesday morning, greeted by a guard of honour, Greek officials and their parents.

"I hope that their release will mark a new chapter for Greek-Turkish relations," Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos told reporters.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras welcomed the Turkish court's move as an "act of justice".

Their release will "contribute to a reinforcement of friendship, good neighbourliness and stability in the region," Tsipras said in a statement.

The court had previously refused several requests for the two soldiers to be released from detention.

The European Union had backed member state Greece in the dispute, condemning the detention of the soldiers and calling for their release.

The release order for the two men -- which was wholly unexpected -- comes as Turkey is engulfed in a bitter dispute with its NATO ally the United States which has seen the Turkish lira plunge to record lows.

Turkey charged the two soldiers with "attempted military espionage" as well as entering a forbidden military zone.

The prosecution said the pair testified they entered the Turkish side by tracking footsteps in the snow and filmed images on their mobile phones to send to higher ranking officials.

Athens and Ankara have also clashed over Turkish demands that Greece extradite eight Turkish troops wanted over the July 2016 attempted coup aimed at unseating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.