Turkey frees Israeli couple held for photographing Erdogan's residence

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured) and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyanin (not pictured), at the State Department in Washington, U.S., October 13, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

TEL AVIV, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Turkey on Thursday freed an Israeli couple who had been arrested for photographing President Tayyip Erdogan's residence in Istanbul and accused of spying, an allegation denied by Israel.

The couple's release spurred the first conversation between the countries' leaders in years.

Mordi and Natali Oknin were detained on Nov 9. A Turk was also arrested on espionage charges, state-run news agency Anadolu said.

Their family said the pair, drivers for Israel's biggest bus company, had been on vacation.

The Oknins' case became a cause celebre in Israel, whose relations with Turkey have been strained as Erdogan has championed the Palestinian cause.

"Thank you to the entire nation of Israel. Thank you to everyone who helped and supported and got us freed," Natali Oknin told reporters after she and Mordi landed in Tel Aviv aboard a chartered private plane.

Turkish officials did not immediately comment.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett later spoke with Erdogan - the first conversation between Turkish and Israeli leaders since 2013, according to Bennett's office - and thanked Erdogan for helping to resolve the affair.

"The prime minister said this is a solution to a humanitarian issue and noted favourably the communication between the countries, which functioned efficiently and discreetly in a time of crisis," Bennett's office said.

Israel sent a senior envoy to Turkey to seek the couple's release.

Matan Kahana, an Israeli cabinet minister, said Turkish authorities had realised that the Oknins were innocent civilians. Israel gave Ankara nothing in return for the couple's release, he added.

"Let's hope that ties with Turkey will warm. I'm confident that, after days of such intensive contacts, connections were created that will naturally be of service to us in the future," Kahana told Israel's Army Radio.

Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Kim Coghill, Simon Cameron-Moore and Giles Elgood

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