Ending Cyprus conflict takes on new urgency Old game of chicken with new missiles, F-16s, warships

June 18, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Standing at the checkpoint that divides the capital city of this island, Andreas Kouloufides shows his 4-year-old daughter a grisly photographic display of the violent clashes that mark the Greek Cypriots' centuries-old conflict with their Turkish cohabitants.

"It is the way she is going to live," the 54-year-old bank employee explains.

His matter-of-fact attitude reflects the intractable nature of an abiding conflict that has divided Cyprus along ethnic fault lines for decades. The struggle engages rivals Greece and Turkey, whose historic enmity has flared with deadly consequences on this sun-baked, pine-scented island.

Resolving the conflict has taken on a new urgency as American emissaries try to forestall a fall shipment of Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Greek Cypriot government. Turkey, which keeps 38,000 troops in the north, has threatened a military strike if the missiles arrive. Cyprus is a mere 40 miles from the southern coast of Turkey.

Greece, which has about 2,000 soldiers stationed in the south as part of a defense pact with the Greek Cypriots, has said a Turkish strike would mean war.

Missiles aren't the only problem. Four Greek F-16 fighters and a cargo plane briefly stopped at a newly completed airport on the Greek side of the island Tuesday, angering the Turks. Five Turkish warships showed up off the northern coast yesterday, infuriating the Greeks.

Making matters worse, the European Union once again rebuffed Turkey's attempts to join the EU, while proceeding with the plan to allow Greek-run Cyprus to become a member.

The United States recently stepped up efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the conflict. It opposes the missile purchase.

"We've never denied that Cyprus has a right to make its own defensive decisions," Thomas J. Miller, the state department's coordinator on Cyprus, said in a recent interview.

"The missiles are not the deterrent that they might be; what they are in fact is a magnet. They make the resolution of the Cyprus problem that much more difficult."

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Cyprus, described the overall problem succinctly in an interview this month with the Los Angeles Times.

"It's not a quiet, peaceful place. It's always one spark, one overflight one misunderstanding away from fighting," he said. "This, in turn, leaves us with two NATO allies -- Greece and Turkey -- very important to our security, always also one event away from fighting."

Recent efforts by Miller and Holbrooke to spur Cypriot negotiations have been unsuccessful. Holbrooke, who brokered the Bosnia peace accords, blames the Turkish side for the standoff.

Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, who relies on Turkey's military and financial support, issued new demands for the start of talks, insisting on the Greek Cypriots' withdrawal of their EU application and on full recognition of his self-declared Turkish Cypriot republic, which no one except Turkey recognizes.

"We want them to accept reality," said Denktash in a recent interview. "Two people, two languages, two religions, two governments, two states. The problem is the claim of the Greek Cypriot side that they are the government of Cyprus and they can speak for Cyprus."

The island's tranquil beaches and bucolic mountains belie a suspended state of unease.

Scattered across both sides of the island are ghost villages, emptied during the population exchange that followed the 1974 Turkish invasion. A U.N. peacekeeping force of about 1,200 patrols the 112-mile length of the cease-fire line.

"It's an island of two embattled, threatened minorities," said one Western diplomat. "Each side focuses on a different part of history. Each side has missed opportunities."

Cyprus always has been an embattled place, envied by empires for its strategic location. The Greek presence on the island dates to 1600 B.C. The Turks arrived with the Ottoman Empire's conquest of the island in 1571. The British gained control of the island in 1878.

Cyprus won its independence in 1960 -- with the help of Greece and Turkey. Treaties established a government in which Greek majority would share power with the Turkish minority. But they also guaranteed the right of Greece and Turkey, the so-called motherlands, to intervene on behalf of their respective countrymen.

In 1974, a Greek Cypriot-led coup, backed by the military junta then in charge in Athens, ousted the elected president, Archbishop Makarios.

Turkey, saying the coup plotters would seek annexation by Greece, invaded the island. Fighting ensued with massacres perpetrated by both sides. By the time a cease-fire was called Aug. 16, Turkish forces controlled 36 percent of the island.

More than 160,000 Greek Cypriots in the north were moved south and about 65,000 Turkish Cypriots were sent to the occupied north. The land and homes lost in the population exchange remain a thorny problem for today's negotiators.

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