Athens, Greece – The presence of eight Turkish military officers on Greek soil is producing tension between the two regional rivals.
Turkey demands their extradition as it tries to round up the planners of an attempted military coup on Friday against the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
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Sources in Greece’s Public Order Ministry confirmed to Al Jazeera that the mid-to-low-level officers – majors, sergeants and sergeant-majors – have applied for asylum in Greece, handing the government a political hot potato.
“The procedures foreseen in international law will be adhered to,” said a statement issued by the government on Saturday.
“However, it is very seriously taken into account that the men stand accused of a breach of constitutional legality and an attempt to dismantle democracy,” the statement read.
Hours later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu turned up the pressure, saying Greece had already agreed to extradite the men. This produced a denial from his Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias.
The men flew a Black Hawk helicopter to the Greek town of Alexandroupoli a few minutes before noon local time on Saturday, after it was clear that the coup had failed in the face of popular opposition on the streets of Turkey.
Two Greek F16s guided the helicopter to the airport in Alexandroupoli, where the men were taken into custody.
“They wore Turkish military uniforms but no insignia,” said police spokesman Loukas Krikos. “They said they wanted to apply for asylum and were taken into custody.”
A source in the Public Order Ministry said: “The legal procedure now involves the men deposing themselves before a magistrate. That is scheduled to happen [on Sunday].”
The head of the Greek Asylum Service told Al Jazeera she has not yet received any official documentation of the men’s application.
“Our Alexandroupoli office is in touch with police, and we are aware of the men’s wish to apply,” said Maria Stavropoulou. “We won’t be receiving these applications until Monday morning.”
Once the applications are in, it will be the asylum service’s job to interview the men and assess the strength of their cases – a process that can take months, as Greece is also currently considering thousands of asylum applications from refugees.
Greece’s stance may be partly influenced by whether the US agrees to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, sought by Turkey as a possible mastermind of the coup.
It may also be influenced by the European Union’s desire to keep intact a March 20 agreement with Erdogan’s government to control the flow of refugees to Europe and to readmit those who arrive on Greek shores.
EU Council President Donald Tusk issued an unequivocal statement on Saturday: “The EU fully supports the democratically elected government … and the rule of law,” he said. “We call for a swift return to Turkey’s constitutional order.”
The Greek and Turkish militaries have made arrangements for the helicopter to be returned, a statement from the Greek joint chiefs said.