Freed in Turkey before spy trial, Greek soldiers await flight home

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Two Greek soldiers facing espionage charges in Turkey are due to fly home early on Wednesday after a provincial court released them, in a ruling Athens said would help to improve strained ties between the two NATO allies.

The soldiers crossed into Turkey in March, in what Greece said was an accident while they were following the trail of suspected illegal migrants.

But a court in the western province of Edirne ordered their detention the same month on suspicion of attempted military espionage.

Angelos Mitretodis (C) and Dimitris Kouklatzis (L), two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, are welcomed by Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Angelos Mitretodis and Dimitris Kouklatzis, two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, salute a guard of honor after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
The parents of Angelos Mitretodis and Dimitris Kouklatzis, two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, the Chief of the Hellenic Army Lieutenant General Alikiviadis Stefanis and Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos wait for the soldiers' arrival after they were released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Dimitris Kouklatzis, one of the two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, is welcomed by his mother after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Angelos Mitretodis, one of the two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, is welcomed by his parents after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Angelos Mitretodis (L) and Dimitris Kouklatzis, two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, are welcomed by their parents after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Angelos Mitretodis (front) and Dimitris Kouklatzis, two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, exit the Greek Prime Minister's airplane after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Angelos Mitretodis (L) and Dimitris Kouklatzis, two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, are welcomed by the Chief of the Hellenic Army Lieutenant General Alikiviadis Stefanis after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
Angelos Mitretodis (L) and Dimitris Kouklatzis, two Greek soldiers who were detained in Turkey after crossing the border, pose for pictures next to their mothers after being released, at the airport of Thessaloniki, Greece, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

The same court ruled for their release on Tuesday after they said in a defence statement they had crossed the border by mistake, state news agency Anadolu said.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras welcomed the ruling. “The release of the two Greek officers is an act of justice which will contribute to friendship, good neighbourly relations and stability in the region,” his office said in a statement.

The conditions of their release were not immediately clear, though Greece said it was sending an aircraft to pick them up.

The prime minister’s office said his plane would fly them back to Thessaloniki, where they would be received early on Wednesday by the defence minister.

Long-time regional rivals Turkey and Greece have been at odds over a host of issues from ethnically divided Cyprus to rights in the Aegean Sea.

Rhetoric has recently been ratcheted up on both sides, particularly after the collapse of peace talks in Cyprus in July 2017.

But following a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of a NATO summit in July, Tsipras said they had agreed to focus efforts on easing tensions in the Aegean.

Turkey has also called on Greece to return eight Turkish commandos who have sought asylum there after commandeering a helicopter to flee Turkey as a coup against Erdogan crumbled in July 2016. Turkey says they were involved, and has demanded they be returned to face trial.

In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was delighted by news of the Greek soldiers’ imminent release.

“As I said (before)… Turkey has nothing to fear from its European neighbours. We want to see a democratic, stable and prosperous Turkey,” he posted on his Twitter feed.

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