Greek court hands suspended sentence to Turkish officers who fled coup

Alexandroupoli (Greece) (AFP) - A Greek court on Thursday sentenced eight Turkish military officers who fled last week's failed coup to suspended two-month prison terms, an AFP reporter said.

The officers, sought by Turkey to face a military trial at home, have requested asylum in Greece and will remain in police custody until their cases on that issue are heard early in August.

The prison sentence for illegal entry was suspended for a three-year period, the court in the northern city of Alexandroupoli said, taking into account that the men felt threatened.

In his defence, one of the Turkish officers told the court through a translator that he did not want to return home owing to "indiscriminate" arrests by Ankara authorities.

"We saw indiscriminate arrests of military personnel and we were afraid," the suspect said.

Another said: "I'm proud to be an army man. I would not have left Turkey had my life not been in danger."

The case threatens to strain ties between the two NATO allies, with Ankara labelling the eight "terrorists".

Turkey's ambassador has warned that failure to return the officers "will not help" ties.

"I hope we will manage to swiftly go through the phases of due process and manage to return these terrorist elements so that they will face justice," Kerim Uras told reporters in Athens on Tuesday.

- Greece on alert -

"We thought of going to Bulgaria, Romania or Greece -- finally we chose Greece," said the officer who opened Thursday's trial, held under tight security.

The officers flew to Alexandroupoli by military helicopter on Saturday and were allowed to land after sending a distress signal to authorities.

A Turkish detachment arrived after them and returned the Black Hawk helicopter to Turkey.

Greek military units have been placed on "heightened vigilance" amid reports that additional Turkish military personnel could be trying to flee to the Greek islands, a navy spokesman told AFP.

The eight men, who declined to give their ranks and units in court, arrived in handcuffs with their faces hidden.

They claim that they were in the process of airlifting wounded men during the clashes that broke out during the attempted coup on Friday, but came under fire by police.

"We had to land in a field near Istanbul and wait, before deciding to flee," the first suspect said.

According to one of their lawyers, Ilia Marinaki, the soldiers -- identified on arrival as two commanders, four captains and two sergeants -- fear for their safety and that of their families after the abortive bid to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish authorities insist they would receive fair treatment at home, despite indications that some suspects have been subjected to rough treatment as Erdogan launches a huge crackdown on suspected coup plotters.

Historic foes, Greece and Turkey both became members of NATO in 1952. Ties have improved dramatically in recent years although there are irritants such as airspace and maritime border disputes.

Greece last year also faulted Turkey for allowing thousands of mainly Syrian refugees and migrants to sail to its shores, before an EU deal stemming the flow came into force in March.

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