ANKARA (AFP): Turkish Cypriot forces were accused of assaulting UN peacekeepers on Friday as they attempted to block the construction of a controversial road in the buffer zone dividing Cyprus, drawing international condemnation.
The confrontation occurred in Pyla, an ethnically mixed village in the UN-patrolled area between the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus in the south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north.
Video widely shared on social media showed bulldozers pushing away UN-marked SUVs, cement barriers and razor wire as well as a posse of Turkish Cypriot police forcing back peacekeepers in blue berets. AFP could not immediately independently verify the footage.
The UN mission said its peacekeepers were assaulted as they tried to block the “unauthorised construction work” near Pyla, the only village where Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots live side by side.
“The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus condemns the assaults against UN peacekeepers and damage to UN vehicles by personnel from the Turkish Cypriot side this morning,” UNFICYP said.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the UN chief “stresses that threats to the safety of UN peacekeepers and damage to UN property are unacceptable and may constitute serious crimes under international law,” said Stephane Dujarric.
European Union member Cyprus denounced what it called “organised incidents caused by the Turkish occupying forces… and the unacceptable attack against British and Slovak members of the UN peacekeeping force”.
The EU also condemned the incident, as well as Britain, France and the United States, who in a joint statement expressed “serious concern at the launch of unauthorised construction” of the road.
The authorities in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, who say the road project is aimed at easing the plight of its people, dismissed the UN mission’s allegations as “baseless”.
“Our expectation from UNFICYP… is to review its biased stance, put an immediate end to its physical interferences and blockage efforts” of the roadworks, the TRNC said in a statement.
– ‘Faits accomplis’ –
An official said Turkish Cypriot police and military in plain clothes had punched a peacekeeper and assaulted a dozen others by “pushing them back violently”.
A tractor was used to drag a UN vehicle out of the way and major damage had been caused to three vehicles, said the official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
In its statement, the UN mission urged the Turkish Cypriot side to “respect the mission’s mandated authority inside the UN buffer zone, refrain from any actions that could escalate tensions further, and withdraw all personnel and machinery from the UN buffer zone immediately”.
UNFICYP said it was determined to block any construction work and would remain in the area.
“The mission is monitoring the situation closely and remains committed to ensuring calm and stability are maintained in the area,” it said.
Cyprus government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis accused the Turkish side of trying to create new “faits accomplis” at Pyla by constructing a road connecting the “occupied village of Arsos with a forward illegal military outpost”.
The spokesman described the Turkish road project as “an attempt at a very serious violation of the status quo”.
– ‘Humanitarian objective’ –
The Turkish Cypriot authorities said the road project had a “humanitarian objective” that was “aimed at providing ease of access to TRNC territory for our citizens living in the village of Pile”.
They said that despite this, the UN peacekeepers had “physically assaulted… our road construction teams as well as our police, who are present in the area only to provide safety. This stance displayed by UNFICYP is unacceptable.”
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish forces occupied its northern third in response to a military coup sponsored by the junta then in power in Greece.
The statehood of the republic Turkish Cypriot leaders proclaimed in 1983 is recognised only by Ankara.
Efforts to reunify Cyprus have been at a standstill since the last round of UN-backed talks collapsed in 2017.
Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar, a protege of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has urged the international community to “acknowledge the existence” of two states in Cyprus.
His calls for a two-state solution have been rejected by the Greek Cypriot leadership of the Republic of Cyprus who say they still want a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation in line with successive UN peace plans.