Jubilant Cypriots revisit past as north throws open border

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Cypriots crossed Europe's last great dividing line yesterday after a surprise decision by the Turkish Cypriot side to throw open the heavily guarded border, despite the recent collapse of peace talks.

Thousands of Cypriots crossed Europe's last great dividing line yesterday after a surprise decision by the Turkish Cypriot side to throw open the heavily guarded border, despite the recent collapse of peace talks.

The so-called "green line" had severed north from south since Turkey invaded the island in 1974 in response to a Greek-engineered coup. It is manned by troops on both sides with the United Nation's longest-serving peacekeeping mission sitting in the no-man's land between.

Crowds were heaviest at Cyprus's answer to the Berlin Wall, a barbed-wire frontier that cuts through the capital, Nicosia. People had to wait at police checkpoints on either side of the ruined Ledra Palace hotel, a one-time luxury hangout for the Cyprus elite.

Groups of ethnic Greeks and Turks waved at each other as they walked across the buffer zone that 24 hours earlier had been a no-man's land. "I'm delighted," said Ahmet Osduran, the first Turkish Cypriot to cross the Greek Cypriot police checkpoint. He was going to visit his old home on the Greek Cypriot side of Nicosia for the first time in many years. "I hope this division may soon finish for good," he said.

What began early in the morning as a trickle became a flood by late afternoon as hundreds of Turkish Cypriots queued on the northern side to cross on foot, while Greek Cypriots waited for the most part in cars.

By late afternoon, an estimated 2,000 Turkish Cypriots had crossed the line, with nearly half that number heading the other way.

The first Greek Cypriot to cross into the north, Christos Michalis, was applauded by Turkish Cypriots going the other way. Iacovos Nikitaras, a Greek Cypriot refugee from the north, drove with his wife and young children to the coastal resort of Kyrenia, 16 miles from Nicosia. "This is unbelievable," he said. "We saw our home again and talked to the Turkish Cypriot family who are living there now. They were very nice and we all wished for a return to the happy days before the division."

A UN official called it "a very important day" for Cyprus, although the deep divisions over territory and recognition that have blocked attempts at reunification remain.

Zbigniew Wlosowicz, the UN secretary general's representative on the island, said: "We hope that this change will be followed by more good things that will contribute to reconciliation on the island."

George Papandreou, the Greek Foreign Minister, noted that the opening came a week after the Greek Cypriot side had signed up to join the European Union in 2004.

"There is a new dynamic on the island ... to find a solution," Mr Papandreou said. "This contact between citizens ... is breaking down the walls."

For the mass of unemployed Turkish Cypriots in the impoverished and isolated north, the opening of checkpoints offers a lifeline to the wealthier south, with its promise of jobs and a European future.

For others it was an eagerly awaited chance to revisit old haunts. "I want to go to Ledra Street ... to Haleppi cake shop," said one woman. But the tearoom had closed long ago. A Chinese take-away stands in its place on a street crowded with Western brand names such as Body Shop and Next. For Greek Cypriots living in the more affluent south it will be their first chance to see the homes that many of them fled three decades ago.

Serdar Denktash, Deputy Prime Minister and son of the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognised by Turkey, said yesterday that the unilateral move was a confidence-building measure.

He said the international community should not interfere, and that reunification would be achieved in small steps. "Let's see whether this plan that was going to be imposed on us [by the international community] could be workable," he said.

Passage will be possible through three checkpoints open daily from 9am to midnight. Overnight stays are not yet on the agenda.

Sener Elcil, a Turkish Cypriot who lives in the north of Nicosia, said the move was a publicity stunt by the increasingly unpopular president, Rauf Denktash."He has used us as a political hostage for the interests of Turkey," he said.