'Day of joy' as Greek soldiers fly home after Turkey release

Vassilis KYRIAKOULIS with Eleni COLLIOPOULOU in Athens
Lieutenant Aggelos Mitretodis, centre left, and Sergeant Dimitros Kouklatzis, centre right, with their parents after returning to Greece

Greece on Wednesday hailed a "day of joy" as two Greek soldiers held in a Turkish prison for more than five months on espionage charges were released in a surprise move by Ankara.

"This is a day of joy... we share the joy of their families," junior foreign minister George Katrougalos, who accompanied the pair home, said on arriving at Thessaloniki airport.

The soldiers, Lieutenant Aggelos Mitretodis and Sergeant Dimitros Kouklatzis, had been detained since March for illegally crossing the border in a case that has stoked tensions between Athens and Ankara.

The two were "dumbstruck" when their release was announced, their Turkish lawyers told the media.

"We want to thank all those who supported us," Mitretodis told reporters at the airport.

The surprise release came as Greece celebrated the Feast of the Assumption in honour of the Virgin Mary, one of the country's foremost religious events.

Underscoring the importance of the case for Greece, senior officials were swiftly dispatched to Turkey on board the prime minister's state jet to collect the soldiers.

The pair could be seen on public broadcaster ERT dressed in their uniforms. They were greeted by a guard or honour, Greek officials and their parents.

- 'New chapter' -

"I hope that their release will mark a new chapter for Greek-Turkish relations," Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos told reporters.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras welcomed the Turkish court's move as an "act of justice".

Their release will "contribute to a reinforcement of friendship, good neighbourliness and stability in the region," Tsipras said in a statement.

The soldiers told Turkish prosecutors shortly after their arrest in March that they mistakenly crossed the border after getting lost in the fog.

The case added to a long list of troubles between Turkey and Greece which, though both NATO members since 1952, have tense relations.

On Tuesday, Turkish media reported that a court in Edirne region had ruled that the two soldiers would now be tried without being held in detention.

The court had previously refused several requests for the two soldiers to be released from detention.

The European Union had also backed member state Greece in the dispute, condemning the detention of the soldiers and calling for their release.

The release order for the two men -- which was wholly unexpected -- comes as Turkey is engulfed in a bitter dispute with its NATO ally the United States which has seen the Turkish lira plunge to record lows.

Turkey charges the two soldiers with "attempted military espionage" as well as entering a forbidden military zone.

The prosecution said the pair testified they entered the Turkish side by tracking footsteps in the snow and filmed images on their mobile phones to send to higher ranking officials.

Their surprise release came amid another spike in tensions between the two neighbours.

A day earlier, Greece's general staff had ordered a freeze in cultural contacts with the Turkish army.

Athens and Ankara have also clashed over Turkish demands that Greece extradite eight Turkish troops wanted over the July 2016 attempted coup aimed at unseating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.