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09 Mar 2007 10:29
Greek Cypriots razed to the ground a symbol of Cyprus’s decades-old division running through the heart of the capital Nicosia and challenged Turkey to respond by withdrawing its troops from the area.
Demolition work on a concrete barrier in Nicosia’s Ledra Street ceased by dawn on Friday, exposing a corridor of crumbling buildings untouched for decades.
The barrier was quickly replaced by sheets of aluminium and remained under heavy police guard. Authorities said that for security reasons the area would remain off limits to civilians until Turkey removed its troops from its side.
Nicosia residents hailed the move as an important step and one compared it with the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“This is extremely symbolic ...
It was not clear what prompted the Greek Cypriot action but both sides on the divided Mediterranean island have been under intense pressure from the international community for the past few years to strike a lasting peace deal.
“Tonight we have demolished the checkpoint on our side,” Papadopoulos told reporters at an European Union summit in Brussels.
“So now we will see whether the Turkish troops will be withdrawn so the passage would be opened or not. Because if the troops are not withdrawn ... there cannot be a passage.”
The barrier was a cement wall stretching from one side of the road to the other. Beyond it is a buffer zone about 50m wide and manned by United Nations troops. Ledra Street is the main commercial district of Nicosia, a city of 250 000 people.
Cyprus has been split into Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north, recognised only by Turkey, since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded to foil an Athens-backed Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the island with Greece.
Turkey has about 35 000 troops in the island’s north.
Diplomats say even if there is a deal with Turkey, it could take several weeks to prepare for any possible opening of the crossing. “It would take about four to five weeks at least,” said a Western diplomat.
When the barrier was demolished, people grabbed chunks of mangled metal and concrete from trucks as they rumbled past.
“This is what happened when the Berlin Wall came down, only in our case the police wouldn’t let us take anything,” said a woman who, after an altercation with police officers, retrieved a rotting plank of wood.
In 1989 Greek and Turkish Cypriots agreed to a partial military disengagement of sentry posts in Nicosia which reduced tensions.
Turkish Cypriot authorities eased restrictions on visits across the Green Line in 2003 and five crossing points have been erected since then between the north and south.
Cyprus relations remain a stumbling block to Turkey’s EU membership aspirations and a source of tension with neighbouring Greece. Greek Cypriots voted against a UN reunification plan shortly before joining the EU in 2004. â€’ Reuters
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