Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Monday that Greece categorically rejects “unacceptable preconditions” from Turkey for the return of two Greek soldiers arrested on the Turkish side of the border in March.
Reuters supposes that Tsipras was responding to a Turkish TV interview with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday in which Erdogan “appeared to float the possibility of handing over the two Greek soldiers if Athens returned the eight Turkish commandos.”
There really wasn’t anything floaty about it—Erdogan forthrightly stated that Athens can have its soldiers back if the accused coup collaborators he wants are delivered to Ankara.
“They 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’ If they are handed to us, we will consider,” Erdogan said on Saturday.
FETO is the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, which is Turkey’s name for the followers of exiled imam Fethullah Gulen. The 75-year-old Gulen has lived in Pennsylvania since the turn of the century. Erdogan’s government accuses him of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt, using a network of followers that included eight soldiers who fled to Greece by helicopter when the coup failed. A Greek court rejected Turkey’s extradition request in March.
On Sunday, the Greek prime minister’s office issued a statement rejecting Erdogan’s attempt to link the fate of the Greek soldiers held by Turkey with the eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece.
“Regarding reports of an exchange, or the equation of the issue of the two Greek soldiers with other issues, we emphasize once again that it is unacceptable and therefore rejected,” the statement said.
“From the Turkish president’s statements yesterday we keep the positive elements: his shift towards peace in the Aegean and the support for dialogue between the two countries on important sectors, among which is security,” the statement continued.
This was a reference to Erdogan’s encouraging comments about the need to improve relations with Greece strained by a dispute over island territory in the Aegean Sea. Tsipras also praised Erdogan’s desire for peace in his comments at a meeting of his Syriza party on Monday.
However, Tsipras also warned Turkey is “at risk of losing its orientation and moving away from its European targets,” an unfortunate reversal of Turkey’s earlier trend towards aligning with the West and joining the European Union.
The EU has called on Turkey to release the two Greek soldiers without conditions—a demand that infuriated Erdogan, as Greece’s Ekathimerini reported on April 1:
“You know, certain people tried to kill me and escaped to Greece by helicopter,” Erdogan said.
“After that, Mr. Tsipras, when I spoke to him, told me that the matter would be dealt with in 10 to 15 days,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
“Months have passed, years have passed, and he still hasn’t dealt with it,” he said.
“A few days ago we caught two Greek soldiers who breached the border and there was an outcry from the whole of the West,” Erdogan said.
“They told us you are a large state, give them to us,” he added, apparently referring to calls by top EU officials at a summit in Varna, Bulgaria, last month for Ankara to free the Greek soldiers.
“I’m very sorry but we also have rule of law. That case is in with the judiciary. Whatever justice decides,” he said.
“You did nothing about those terrorists, you didn’t say anything about them to Mr. Tsipras,” Erdogan said, apparently referring to the eight Turkish soldiers whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought but has been rejected by Greece’s Supreme Court.
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos also rejected what he called Erdogan’s “swap deal” on Monday.
“An 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.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, perhaps the most outspoken critic of Turkey among high Greek officials, declared himself vindicated for accusing the Turks of taking his troops hostage.
“When I spoke about a hostage situation of the Greek soldiers I was mocked. Sadly, I am confirmed by this proposal of exchange,” Kammenos said.