New crossing soon?
NICOSIA, March 9, 2007 (AFP) - A concrete wall in Nicosia symbolising the decades-old Cyprus conflict was demolished by Greek Cypriots early on Friday to make way for a crossing point in the heart of the world's last divided capital.
The move was welcomed by the Turkish Cypriots and by the United Nations, whose troops have for decades patrolled a buffer zone between the two sides. Ledra Street, a pedestrian shopping area inside the Venetian walls of the old city, was cordoned off late on Thursday and demolition teams dismantled the barrier between the Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish occupied north.
"This is a show of goodwill on our side to contribute positively to opening Ledra Street," Cypriot government spokesman Christodoulos Pashardes said. The surprise move came four years after the opening of an initial crossing that allowed unprecedented movement across the UN-patrolled buffer zone for the first time in three decades. Nicosia's first woman mayor, Eleni Mavrou, said "the important thing now is for Ledra to open, to have communication and the city to come to life."
But Parshardes said people could not start crossing as long as Turkish troops remain in the northern sector of Nicosia. "This doesn't mean Ledra is open yet."
Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey seized its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece. Turkey, which still maintains around 42,500 troops in northern Cyprus, had no immediate reaction to the wall coming down. Pashardes said the government had invited the Turkish Cypriots to a dialogue to discuss outstanding issues. "That is if they really want Ledra Street to be opened."
Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, speaking in Brussels, said "the obstacle is not the wall but the Turkish troops. If the troops pull back and allow the UN to check for landmines, as we believe there are, then the crossing can open, but troops must withdraw." Opposing troops are at their closest distance in Ledra, and the government would like to see Turkish and Cypriot National Guard troops pull back some 100 metres (yards) from their present positions, which separate them by only about 50 metres. House of Representatives Speaker Demetris Christofias, who is acting president while Papodopoulos is out of the country, said "the National Guard are fully prepared to move back. "If the other side ... responds then it will happen soon; if not, it won't," he added.
Ferdi Sabit Soyer, prime minister of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, welcomed the demolition as a "positive development." He said the administration of his statelet, recognised only by Turkey, would soon begin work on opening up a passage in the area.
The UN chief of mission, Michael Moller, said the demolition represents a "very welcome and positive contribution of great symbolic significance. "Both in efforts to open a crossing point at this historic location and to create a positive atmosphere in which a search for a comprehensive settlement can flourish," he said in a statement. The UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) is "assisting both sides with practical arrangements to move this much anticipated process forward" and "expedite progress," Moller said.
Before a normal crossing point can operate, crumbling buildings will need to be shored up, and the area will have to be swept for landmines. "Once the sides are in agreement as to the way ahead, UNFICYP will immediately move, with EU funded support, to ensure the area's overall safety," said Moller. A makeshift partition has replaced the Ledra Street wall until there is mutual agreement on the way forward.
UNFICYP estimated it would take five to six weeks to make a viable crossing at Ledra once both sides are agreed. A crossing in the area had been mooted in 2005, but a dispute over an elevated walkway erected by the Turkish Cypriot side brought a halt to proceedings until it was dismantled in January. Ledra Street would be the sixth crossing point across the divide since April 2003, when the border was opened.
Ledra Street is where barricades were first erected in Nicosia during intercommunal violence that flared in 1963. A year later, UN peacekeeping troops arrived on the island and have remained ever since. Cyprus joined the EU as a divided island in May 2004 but there has been no major progress in reunification despite UN-sponsored talks between Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat in July 2006. 126.96.36.199 08:52, 9 March 2007 (EST)