ATHENS (Reuters) - A Turkish soldier who fled to Greece after a failed military coup attempt in Turkey last month was interviewed by asylum officials in Athens on Friday, the first step in a legal process which will help determine whether he should be sent back home.
Eight soldiers flew a military helicopter to the northern Greek border town of Alexandroupolis on July 16, a day after the coup attempt unfolded. They immediately sought political asylum but were arrested and later sentenced to two months in jail on charges of entering Greece illegally.
Turkey has formally sought their extradition, calling them 'traitors' and 'terrorist elements'. The men - three majors, three captains and two sergeant majors - deny any involvement in the coup and fear for their lives if returned to Turkey, according to their lawyers.
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"We are ready to do everything humanly possible and legally feasible, with utmost diligence, to avert the extradition of these eight innocent people to Turkey. And be sure of this, we will make it," their lawyer Stavroula Tomara said.
She did not provide any information on the progress of the hearing which lasted hours and is expected to continue next week, according to government officials. The hearings of the other soldiers will follow.
The case has underscored lingering tensions between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, tho neighboring countries which came to the brink of war twenty years ago over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean Sea.
It has also piled pressure on the left-led government of EU member Greece, which is struggling to emerge from a debt crisis and manage Europe's worst refugee crisis in decades. Tens of thousands of migrants have arrived on Greek shores from Turkey this year, and arrivals continue despite an EU-Turkey pact.
Turkey has detained thousands of soldiers including half its generals since the coup attempt, in which more than 200 people, including civilians, were killed.
The eight men say they did not know a coup was under way and were obeying orders by their superiors to transport the wounded from street clashes to ambulances, according to their lawyers.
They said they fled to Greece when their Black Hawk helicopter came under fire from police on the ground.
Turkey's extradition demand will be ruled upon separately by a panel of Greek judges.
(Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Phoebe Fronista; editing by Ralph Boulton)