In Cyprus, U.N. force is a fixture 29-year presence halts fighting, but talks have failed

February 01, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- United Nations forces prevented yet another outbreak of ethnic warfare the other day, this time over a soon-to-be-dead cat.

The cat was the pet of a Turkish soldier on one side of a buffer zone separating Turkish Cypriots from Greek Cypriots. It was hit by a jeep, and when the Turk raised his weapon to shoot the injured cat, the Greek Cypriots on the other side brought their weapons to the fore.

U.N. soldiers hurried between them, and no shot was fired.

"A lot of this is pretty petty," said Capt. Tim Billings, an officer of the Canadian troops assigned to the U.N. Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP). "We've had incidents when one side shot a slingshot at another, or when they've called each other names. But I guess if we keep people from killing each other, we've done our job."

This is the daily grind of UNFICYP, one of the oldest U.N. peacekeeping forces, which came to Cyprus in 1964 to stop the sort of ethnic bloodletting that characterizes the emergence of new orders and old enmities in so many other places lately.

U.N. troops increasingly are being sent to these messy conflicts. They have slogged into quagmires like the Balkans, Somalia and Cambodia, hoping that they can do some good.

With the Cold War behind it, the United Nations struggles for ways to assert itself as an arbiter of the New World Order. And an enforcer: The world body has launched more peacekeeping operations -- 14 -- in the last five years than it had in the previous 40. Two of those operations have completed their missions.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the activist U.N. secretary-general, has even bigger plans. He wants member nations to ready rapid deployment forces that can charge into crises under the U.N. flag in a matter of days, not months.

But as blue-helmeted troops fan out over the globe as a new world police, reluctantly in places like Somalia, fatally in places like the Balkans and Cambodia, cautious voices are urging a look at the U.N. experience in Cyprus.

In the almost 29 years since the first U.N. forces arrived here, negotiations have failed to bring the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to a resolution of their bitter feud. Instead, the U.N. has become a fixture in the fight, forced to referee over dying cats, intervene in domestic disputes and run messages for Greek Cypriot electrical repairmen who refuse to speak to their Turkish Cypriot counterparts.

"We've stepped in this, and we don't know how to get out," said a UNFICYP official.

But they can point to this: The U.N. forces put a stop to communal fighting that had produced massacres, mass graves and made refugees of nearly a third of the population of this small island.

"The aim is to keep the peace. We didn't fail in that," said Waldemar Rokoszewski, a spokesman for the 1,500-strong U.N. force in Cyprus. "There has been a lack of significant progress in peacemaking, but in peacekeeping we have succeeded."

"Is it worth it to have the U.N. here? In global terms, the answer is yes," said Lt. Col. Murray Swan, commander of the Canadian troops, who make up one-third of the U.N. force. "It's cheap at $100 million a year to have stability in Cyprus."

But Colonel Swan and his men soon will be gone. After the failure of the latest round of talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots last fall, Canada announced it will withdraw its troops in June.

"We felt we've done our bit," said the Canadian, who has served four tours in Cyprus. "There are competing demands -- and more pressing demands, I might add. After 29 years with no significant progress in solving this, we have decided to go."

Denmark withdrew its contingent in December. Britain and Austria also have reduced their contingents.

Reductions worry Greeks

The reductions have caused consternation among Greek Cypriots, who wonder who will patrol the 100-mile-long "buffer zone" that separates them from the powerful Turkish forces.

That buffer zone is a snakelike line that curls through a map of the island. In places it is 4 miles wide, green with orchards tended by farmers with special passes who work fields carefully marked with white-painted barrels.

In other places it is a narrow alley, dark and grim, flanked with sandbag bunkers and gun portals.

"It gets kind of tense here at night," Captain Billings said as he walked past Turkish and Greek Cypriot posts glaring at each other over the buffer zone in the old city of Nicosia. "There is a lot of cocking of guns."

The buffer zone splits Nicosia, the capital. A jagged line of bombed and bullet-sprayed buildings jogs the memories of hate, and the opposing sides are only a shouted insult apart. U.N. forces are often busy keeping combatants apart.

Opposing troops who edge into the buffer zone cause incidents. There were three shootings last year, though no injuries. Usually, the U.N. forces intervene before matters get out of hand.

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