Turkey intensifies tensions with Greece as soldiers released

Turkey is threatening to track down and grab eight of its soldiers who have applied for asylum in Greece and flew its F-16s over Greek territory on Tuesday in a further escalation of tensions.

In what appeared a direct threat to Greek sovereignty, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said late on Monday that it was his government’s duty “to find these ‘putschist’ soldiers wherever they are, pack them up and bring them to Turkey.”

On Monday, Greece moved the soldiers out of police custody and placed them in top-secret locations under heavy police protection, the Guardian reported. Greek law stated that they could only be held for 18 months. The soldiers flew a helicopter into Greece in July 2016 in the aftermath of a failed coup in Turkey.

“Given Turkey’s mindset, the situation is very dangerous,” said a senior judicial source, the Guardian said. “But this is an issue of justice and we feel strongly that we must stand up for it.”

Turkey says there is overwhelming evidence that the men participated in the attempted coup, which it says was planned by supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who leads a clandestine, Mason-like Islamic movement with hundreds of thousands of followers in Turkey.

Turkey grabbed six members of the Gulen movement in Kosovo in March in what local media dubbed as a kidnapping. Kosovan intelligence and police reportedly helped Turkey in the operation, but Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said he was not informed about the operation.

Political and military tensions between the two Aegean neighbours have escalated sharply since December, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was time to renegotiate an early 20th century treaty that marked out the two countries’ common borders. Greece owns scores of islands and islets close to Turkey’s coastline.

Greek and Turkish fighter jets have since engaged in mock dogfights over the Aegean, a Greek coastguard ship was rammed off a disputed islet by a Turkish boat and Turkey has arrested and jailed two Greek soldiers who allegedly strayed across its border, refusing to release them,

In a latest escalation, formations of Turkish F-16 jets flew at low altitude over Aegean islands for more than 20 minutes on Tuesday as Ankara accused Greece of sheltering the soldiers, who it classifies as terrorists.  

Greece’s highest court has rejected the soldiers’ extradition saying they would not face a fair trial in Turkey.

“The air violations, like the tensions more generally, should be seen in the context of Turkey’s ambitions to become the region’s hegemon,” retired admiral Vasilios Martzoukos said, according to the Guardian.

“The EU has to recognise that Greece’s borders are Europe’s borders,” he said.

“Tensions are high. Turkey feels strong. It spends $18bn a year on armaments. It doesn’t care about borders or international treaties. What we are seeing is because it has distanced itself from NATO and the values of the West.”