Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos has firmly rejected an informal request by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the possibility of a swap of soldiers between the two countries. The row comes as Greek Defense Minister, Panos Kammenos previously characterized Turkey’s taking of two Greek soldiers as ‘hostage taking’.
“The exchange of the two Greek soldiers that are jailed with the eight Turkish soldiers that are in Greece is out of the question,” Pavlopoulos said in reference to the two Greek soldiers who have been charged with espionage in Turkey after crossing over the border on March 2. Public sentiment in Greek media reflects a view that the situation is not a normal diplomatic exchange of soldiers detained for border violations, but rather a calculated move by Erdogan to force Greece to hand over Turkish suspects.
Pavlopoulos said on Sunday that Greece country will never bow to Ankara’s request to hand over eight Turkish soldiers who are wanted over a suspected role in a failed coup attempt, in return for Turkey’s extradition of two jailed Greek soldiers.
Erdogan said Saturday that Turkey will only extradite the soldiers if Greece extradited the Turkish soldiers whom Ankara designates as members of FETO, a movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who is accused of masterminding the July 16, 2016 coup attempt.
“They (Greece) ask us to give back the Greek soldiers and we told them ‘if you make such a demand, you should first give us FETO soldiers involved in a coup against our state’,” Erdogan said, adding, “If they are handed to us, we will consider” the situation on Greek soldiers.
Turkey wants its eight servicemen who escaped the country following the coup to face prosecution at home. Greece’s Supreme Court has ruled against the request and authorities in Athens insist Ankara has deliberately jailed the Greek soldiers to force the extradition of Turkish soldiers. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called on Turkey earlier this month to stop using the jailed soldiers as “pawns to blackmail”.
Greek Defense Minister, Panos Kammenos said on Saturday that Erdogan’s comments about the swap proved there was a hostage situation.
“When I spoke about a hostage situation of the Greek soldiers I was mocked. Sadly, I am confirmed by this proposal of exchange,” said Kammenos.
But Greek authorities have denied since March that they have any plans to exchange eight Turkish soldiers wanted on suspicion of involvement in a failed coup in Turkey with two Greek soldiers arrested then.
Junior Foreign Minister Yiorgos Katrougalos said back in February, that reports in Turkish media that Athens would be ready to have its soldiers, arrested on the border inside Turkish territory, in return for extradition of the eight Turkish servicemen, were “spy stories.”
“This is pure fantasy. We are not at war with Turkey to conduct an exchange of prisoners,” said Katrougalos, adding, “This is not an unusual episode. Such incidents occur on the border.”
Turkey has repeatedly called on Greece to hand over the eight Turkish soldiers, who fled on the night of the failed coup of July 15, 2016 out of prosecution fears. Greece defends its refusal to extradite the soldiers, saying they might face unfair trial back at home.
The dispute, one among the list of issues that Ankara and Athens disagree on, drew fresh attention after the arrest of the two Greek soldiers by a Turkish border patrol on March 1st. The Greek army denied the two had been spying in the Turkish territory, as claimed by some authorities, and said that poor weather caused them to lose their way while patrolling the area around the Evros river that separates Turkey and Greece.
Turkish state agency Anadolu said the pair, a lieutenant and a sergeant, now held at Edirne, will be put on trial on Monday on charges that include illegal entry in a restricted area and attempted military espionage.
Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, a Greek government spokesman, said in early March that Athens was expecting a swift return of the two, adding the case was only a matter of “illegal entry.” Since that time, there has been no progress on this problem