Turkish Cypriots attack UN peacekeepers trying to halt road work inside divided Cyprus’ buffer zone

18 August 2023

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Angry Turkish Cypriots punched and kicked a group of international peacekeepers who obstructed crews working on a road that would encroach on a U.N.-controlled buffer zone in ethnically divided Cyprus, the U.N. said Friday.

It said the attack happened as peacekeepers stood in the way of work crews building a road to connect the village of Arsos in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north with the mixed Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot village of Pyla, just south of the buffer zone and inside the Greek Cypriot south, where the island’s internationally recognized government is seated.

A video seen by the Associated Press showed scores of Turkish Cypriots accosting a much smaller group of Slovak and British U.N. soldiers trying to hold them back from starting work inside the buffer zone. Some peacekeepers suffered blows to the face as they linked arms to push back the advancing Turkish Cypriots. The U.N. said three soldiers had to be treated for minor injuries.

The violence constitutes a serious escalation of tensions not seen on the island in years.

“Threats to the safety of U.N. peacekeepers and damage to U.N. property are unacceptable and constitute a serious crime under international law which will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” the peacekeeping force, known as UNFICYP, said in a statement.

UNFICYP spokesman Aleem Siddique told the Associated Press that the U.N. won’t back down from continuing to “block or frustrate construction of the road by nonviolent means,” despite Friday’s assault. He said construction of the road would violate the forces’ mandate of maintaining the status quo inside the buffer zone.

The road would give Turkish Cypriots direct access to Pyla by circumventing a checkpoint on the northern fringe of British military base, one of two bases that the U.K. retained after Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960.

Greek Cypriots perceive the road construction as a move with a military purpose at a sensitive spot along the buffer zone that spans 180 kilometers (120 miles).

EU Council President Charles Michel and the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell both condemned the assaults and urged a de-escalation of the situation.

The embassies of the U.K., France and the United Nations issued a joint statement expressing “serious concern” over construction of the road and condemned as “completely unacceptable” the assaults while urging for an immediate halt to the work.

Maintaining the status quo of the buffer zone is enshrined in the U.N. mission’s mandate since 1974, when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup mounted by Greek junta-backed supporters of union with Greece.

The U.N. says there have been numerous infringements of the buffer zone by both sides over the years. But this road construction is seen by the Cyprus government as “an attempt at a very serious violation of the status quo.”

Cyprus government spokesman Constantinos Letymbiotis condemned what he called the “organized violence,” adding that the government is in touch with the U.N., the EU and other governments to prevent “Turkish designs.”

The situation is likely to hamper the Cypriot government’s efforts to restart negotiations to resolve the island’s division

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