Alarm at Cyprus Greeks' missile deal

The Greek Cypriots have signed a deal to buy advanced surface- to-air missiles from the Russians, Turkish officials said yesterday. The sale increases concern about a build-up of arms on the militarised island.

British sources in Nicosia said they had had no confirmation that the deal to buy Russian S-300 missiles, which have a range of 90 miles, had been signed, but that they had known for some time that it was about to be concluded.

Turkey's Defence Minister, Turhan Hayan, said: "This situation will undermine peace in the region." However, a Cyprus government spokesman, Yiannakis Cassoulides, said: "The Cyprus Republic has the legitimate right to strengthen its defences so its people cease to be hostages of the Turkish occupation forces."

The S-300s mark a dramatic advance in Cyprus's ability to shoot down aircraft. With them it could hit planes in nearby Turkish airspace, neutralising the overwhelming air superiority Turkey has enjoyed over the island since 1974.

Greece and Turkey are the only two Nato countries where there is a real risk of armed conflict, and each backs its ethnic brothers on the island. For the Greek Cypriots to buy Russian is also a small boost for Russia, which is desperate to sell its hi-tech weaponry to raise hard currency.

Diplomatic sources said yesterday that the purchase was significant in the context of general concerns about an arms build-up. "The Cyprus government has admitted to some journalists this is a tactic to get world attention, but it is a risky game to play," one diplomat said.

The move may be designed to increase pressure for a settlement of the situation on the island before talks begin next year on Cyprus's possible accession to the European Union. Turkey wants to join the EU as well, so a solution would be timely for both sides.

Since the Turkish invasion in 1974, Cyprus has been split between the internationally recognised republic in the south, largely peopled by Greek Cypriots, and the "Turkish Republic of North Cyprus", recognised only by Turkey. Turkey maintains a massive military presence in the north, having an entire corps of 30,000 troops there, and there are also about 5,000 troops belonging to the North Cyprus republic. The Greek part of the island has more people (700,000), but fewer forces: about 10,000 Cypriots with 1,000 advisers from mainland Greece. There are also 4,000 British troops in the separate sovereign base areas and 1,000 UN troops maintaining the cease-fire line between Greeks and Turks.

It is understood the missiles may be deployed to defend an air and naval base under construction on the west of the island, which is less threatening to Turkey, although Greece and Turkey also remain in dispute over certain islands in the Aegean Sea.