How electronic eavesdropping keeps a small part of Cyprus forever British

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The Independent Online
Why are the Brits in Cyprus?

Why are the British in Cyprus? Long after two world wars and a Cold War and a miserable adventure in Suez, still we do not seem to be able to shake ourselves off the island and our dreamy, largely empty sovereign military bases.

Almost half a century ago, we had 40,000 troops on the island. Today, just 4,500 are left to man its desolate air base at Akrotiri and, along with tens of thousands of British, German and Swedish tourists, drink the island's execrable wine. So why are we there?

In Ottoman times, the Turkish fleet would fire a salute each time it passed the Teke Mosque on the edge of the Larnaca salt lake in honour of the Prophet's aunt, Um Haram, who was buried beneath the delicate brown dome. From the Crusades, Cyprus had always inspired military and political hopes.

Long before the British turned it into a colony after the First World War, Theodore Herzl had suggested to the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain that the island ­ rented from Turkey under an 1878 agreement ­ could become a provisional Jewish homeland before Palestine became available. For the British, however, it was always a strategic imperial asset.

They offered the island to Greece in the 1914-18 war in a vain attempt to bring the pro-German king on to the Allied side. In the Second World War, as 30,000 Cypriots volunteered for the Allied cause ­ believing this would earn them independence after the war ­ the Italians bombed Nicosia airport.

But when the Cold War began, the Foreign Office decided that British "defence interests" meant the island could never expect its freedom. It was this that started Eoka's uprising for independence.

In 1956, even as British sentries manned road-blocks across the island, RAF bombers were taking off from Cyprus to bomb Suez. Egyptian guerrillas were flown into Larnaca for interrogation and ­ according to at least one survivor ­ to be tortured.

Even after a cruel war of independence, the British clung on to their three bases. Anachronism though they were, they came to be seen as R-and-R operations, the garrisons more interested in drinking ­ and sometimes fighting ­ in the beach resort of Ayia Napa. In the worst case of its kind, in September 1994, a young Danish tour guide called Louise Jensen was dragged from her boyfriend by three members of the Royal Green Jackets, raped and murdered. Allan Ford, Justin Fowler and Geoff Pernell were convicted less than two years later amid much bitterness among the Cypriots. Had the girl been a Cypriot, it was said, the three would have been lynched.

If Cyprus was a low-grade staging post during the 1991 Gulf War, however, the real reason for the British presence today has nothing to do with colonial power. The domed listening station on the top of Mount Troodos and the Dhekelia and Akrotiri listening bases ­ their electronic eavesdropping apparatus can penetrate as far as Siberia and Iran ­ are the cause of "our" continued miniature rule on the island.

In this context, it is not surprising that the British are determined to construct their new antenna: "security" comes first; even if it's not Cypriot security.