It was 3:19 Wednesday morning when the state airplane landed at the airport of Thessaloniki. On board were Greek soldiers Aggelos Mitretodis and Dimitris Kouklatzis, who touched again Greek soil after 167 days in Turkish custody.
Second Lieutnant Mitretodis and Sergeant Kouklatzis exited the airplane wearing military uniforms and not the civilian clothes in which they left the Turkish high security prison in Edirne.
They first greeted Defense Minister Panos Kammenos and the chief of General Staff Alkiaviadis Stefanis.
Then they were lost in their parents’ arms who hardly managed to withhold their tears seeing their children for the first time after five and a half months back to Greece.
“I thank all people who supported us,” Mitretodis said and refrained from answering reporters’ question about “how was it in the Turkish prison.”
“I want to send a message of unity. I hope their release on this important day will also mean another day for the Greek-Turkish relations,” Defense Ministry Kammenos said and underlined “I welcome the two soldiers and congratulate them for keeping their oath, for not given up the flag and for serving it under these conditions of captivity and who came back to continue serving the homeland.”
After the small welcome ceremony, the soldiers were taken to the military hospital for medical examination.
In a surprise move, a Turkish court ruled the release of the two Greek soldiers on Tuesday afternoon. They were allowed to leave the country pending trial.
They were released from prison late at night and after completing bureaucratic procedures they were taken to a hospital for medical examination.
Under strict security measures they were taken to the airport of Corlu by Edirne, North-West Turkey, and got on board of the Greek plane.
Alternate Foreign Minister Giorgos Katorugalos and Deputy Chief of Staff Konstantinos Floros had flown to Turkey to secure the return of the two Greek soldiers back home.
Mitretodis and Kouklatzis were arrested by the Turkish Gendarme when they accidentally cross into Turkish territory due to bad weather conditions on March 1. They remained in Turkish custody in high security prison in Edirne for 167 days without pressed charges.
Turkish courts had rejected several requests for their release claiming they were at risk to leave Turkey pending trial.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had tried to exchange the two Greek soldiers with the eight Turkish servicemen who had fled to Greece and were granted political asylum after the failed coup in July 2016. The exchange was categorically denied by the Greek side.
According to Turkish media, the court ruled their release on Tuesday, after thorough investigation in the mobile phones of Kouklatzis and Mitretodis proved that they were found “clean”, that is the two had not filmed or shot pictures from the forbidden military zone.
They two Greek soldiers were at risk to be charged with espionage.
Their release was a surprise for everyone and the decision is clearly a political one. Greek media suggest that their names were on a list of 15 foreign nationals currently in Turkish prisons US officials gave to a delegation from Ankara beginning of the month. The Turkish officials had flown to Washington to reach a deal with the US administration over US pastor Andrew Brunson. Donald Trump imposed strict financial sanctions on Turkey and will continue to do so, until the pastor is released. Turkish media report on Wendesday that Brunson will be released in upcoming weekend. So maybe Erdogan did not want to lose face and release only him.
Greece has taken several diplomatic initiatives but also practical steps to facilitate the release.
Once in Greece, the Mitretodis and Kouklatzis will not have to return to Turkey to attend their trial. They can be reportedly tried in absentia with only their lawyers’ presence.
According to Greek media, the sentence a Turkish court could impose on them could be in relation the time they spent in Turkish custody: 5.5 months or 167 days.
The release was hailed by all political parties.