Violence in a vestige of empire

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The Independent Online

Middle East Correspondent

If Britons were surprised that off-duty British soldiers would be charged with the murder of a young Danish tour guide on the supposedly paradise island of Cyprus, the barmen of Ayia Napa were not. One was Louise Jensen's boyfriend and no one who sat in the anaemic modern courtroom in Larnaca will forget the way he stared at Louise's alleged murderers and said that, if he had had a gun on the night of the killing, he would have shot all of them.

British army officers are always boasting of the discipline of their men and their behaviour under fire; but in Cyprus, the soldiers languishing in the last great vestige of imperial rule, the neat semi-colonial sovereign base of Dhekelia, have been synonymous with boredom, drunkenness and violence.

"Day after day they used to come into our pub and insult people and we never understood why they behaved like this," a Greek Cypriot barman from Ayia Napa, working in a cafe 50 metres from Louise Jensen's boyfriend, told me two weeks after the girl had been battered to death.

"Even before Louise's killing, I didn't allow soldiers into my bar, because I'd had so many problems."

Ayia Napa is a rich little village on the edge of the Turkish-occupied Famagusta suburb of Varosha. Perhaps there should be a front-line tension about the place but it's a haunt of Nordic tourists, whose night clubs and topless beaches make millions from the plane-loads of Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Finns as well as Germans who flock here each summer.

The last drama to occur down the road at Dhekelia, save for a lone Libyan bomb at a neighbouring base a decade ago, was a preposterous spy case in which a clutch of British soldiers, supposedly seduced by a beautiful Hungarian dancer, were charged with passing information to a "foreign power".

All were acquitted after the lovely lady gave evidence on their behalf at the Old Bailey, a trial which indirectly unmasked the ``Churchills", a couple who wandered the island as tourists but turned out to be MI6 agents.

But there was nothing seductive about the laissez-faire discipline of the Royal Green Jackets when they turned up each evening at Ayia Napa to ogle the girls and drink.

"They used to come in and try to flirt but they did it in filthy language," the barman said.

"They'd go up to girls and say `Do you want fuck?' and pinch them. Two months before Louise's murder two English soldiers started bothering a Norwegian girl. They got hold of her hand, and forced her to dance with each of them. She didn't want to dance. She said to me, `Elias, please help me, please do something'. I turned round and one of them punched her in the stomach and they both left immediately. She was crying on the floor."

Oddly, British officers on the island chose to turn a blind eye to the "Yob culture" of their men. After an incident in 1994, in which off-duty members of the Royal Green Jackets punched, insulted and threw drinks over four girls in Ayia Napa, a British-based commander indulgently responded to their complaints by writing: "I command nearly 650 men (with an average age of 22) and much as I would wish them to be paragons of virtue, they cannot be expected to survive two-and-a-half years in Cyprus without causing some trouble."

Why not, the Cypriots wanted to know? If British troops were apparently so disciplined on the streets of Northern Ireland, or Bosnia, why were they allowed to run amok in the infinitely safer and more peaceful streets of Cyprus?

The Cyprus News called the British officer's remarks "shameful", urging Malcolm Rifkind, the then Secretary of State for Defence, to take matters in hand. Heads should roll, the papers said. But none did.

After Louise's murder, another officer, Major-General Alex Harley, expressed his sympathy to the dead girl's family. But Cypriots did not fail to notice how, each day of the trial, a British officer in civilian clothes sat at the back of the Larnaca court while a woman from the WVS turned up to provide funds for the defendants. Save for a lone visit from the local Danish consul, Louise Jensen's family went unrepresented until yesterday.