Blockade threat in Med's missile crisis

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The Independent Online
Turkey threatened yesterday to blockade Cyprus and even launch a military strike if the island's internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government went ahead with a widely criticised plan to deploy Russian anti-aircraft missiles. "Those who play with fire have to take responsibility for their actions," said Turkey's Defence Minister, Turhan Tayan.

"We are strongly against these missiles going to the island. We will use all our capabilities to prevent it."

The Cyprus government announced last weekend that it was buying the S- 300 Russian surface-to-air missile system as a way of neutralising Turkey's long- held air superiority over the island. The deal was immediately criticised by the United States and Britain as likely to inflame tensions on Cyprus, a former British colony which has been forcibly divided into Greek and Turkish sectors since 1974. In the past few days, the missile crisis has blown up into Europe's most serious risk of international confrontation for many years. This has coincided with a separate Greek-Turkish row over the ownership of islands in the Aegean Sea.

Mr Tayan compared the Cyprus crisis with events in Cuba in 1962, when the US blockaded the island in response to the Soviet deployment of missiles there. But Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency went further and suggested that the Turkish armed forces would launch a military strike against the missiles after Russia had delivered them.

Greek Cypriot officials last night tried to play down the crisis, saying there was no fixed date for the deployment of the missiles, and that their purchase was intended primarily to refocus international attention on the need to solve the Cyprus dispute.

The island has been divided into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish- occupied north since Turkish forces invaded in response to a pro-Greek coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece. Greece's Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, appeared unconcerned about the threats. "Turkish aggression has been expressed for some time. We would be playing Turkey's game if we showed particular worry over this and were swept into an atmosphere of crisis," he said.

Prospects for cooling the situation depend heavily on a senior US diplomat, Carey Cavanaugh, who is to visit Cyprus, Greece and Turkey from next Sunday. He is expected to urge steps to lower the risk of conflict, including limits on Greek and Turkish military overflights of Cyprus.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, appealed to the Cyprus government last month not to buy the missiles, saying the island was already one of the most dangerously militarised places on earth. But the Greek Cypriots retorted that the basic problems remained the presence of 30,000 Turkish troops and the existence of a rogue Turkish Cypriot state that is recognised only by Turkey.