Memory of 1974 keeps Cypriot peace deal grounded

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The Independent Online
The gutted shell of a Cyprus Airways passenger jet lies on the tarmac of Nicosia airport, silent and sinister testimony to the failure of 22 years of international efforts to solve the island's problems. The aircraft, a Trident Sun Jet, bears the scars of gunfire from Turkish forces who foiled the pilot's attempt to take off with his passengers and crew and escape Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in July 1974.

Twenty-two years later, not only is the plane still there, but the airport itself looks as if it has been trapped in time. Wall posters in the departure hall display advertisements for the kind of watches, cigarettes and beach holidays that people bought in 1974.

The perfectly preserved skeleton of a bird lies on the floor. Bullet- shattered windows remind visitors of the fighting that erupted in and around Nicosia all those summers ago.

Such scenes speak of the mountainous task facing Britain, its European Union partners and the United States as they try to launch the most serious effort at breaking the Cyprus deadlock since 1974. All declare that the status quo on Cyprus is unacceptable, yet the status quo at Nicosia airport has taken on the air of eternity.

It is the bleakest, emptiest airport in Europe, perhaps in the world. All the clocks, information boards, luggage conveyor belts and signs at check-in desks and passport control were taken down long ago.

There are no people and no vehicles outside, except an occasional van driven by a United Nations soldier. When no one is visiting, a UN officer locks the terminal building with a padlock labelled "Airport Keys".

The airport lies within a UN-protected area dividing the Turkish-held north from the Greek Cypriot, government-held south of Cyprus. No commercial plane has been allowed to fly into or out of Nicosia since 1974, an inconvenience which obliges most people heading for the capital's Greek sector to fly into Larnaca 30 miles away on the south coast.

There was once a plan to reopen the airport for civilians, part of a set of UN "confidence-building measures" to promote an overall settlement. Even under these proposals, Greek and Turkish Cypriots would have used different entrances and exits to the airport.

If the airport is stuck in time, so are the attitudes of many on both sides of the island. Crossing from the government- controlled sector of Nicosia to the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", one sees a poster proclaiming: "Turkish murderers out of Cyprus" and then, on the Turkish side, a poster proclaiming: "The clock cannot be put back to the 1963-74 period".

This harks back to the slaughter of Turkish Cypriots in 1963, three years after independence from Britain. It is an episode etched as searingly in theirmemory as is Turkey's 1974 invasion and occupation of the north for Greek Cypriots.

Now the outside world is urging both sides to shed prejudices inherited from 1963 and 1974. The aim is to open direct talks next spring between the two communities' leaders, President Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktash.

However, the world is making its long-awaited "big push on Cyprus" at a time when tensions on the island, and between Greece and Turkey, are higher than for many years. Five people have been killed in ethnic violence this year, and an arms race is gathering speed.

The difficulties were highlighted in a visit paid this week by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary. After issuing a 10-point proposal for ending the stalemate, he was criticised by Greek Cypriots for talking about one "international personality" for Cyprus rather than a single undivided sovereignty.

At the same time, Mr Denktash stonewalled him by rejecting any linkage between a settlement of the Cyprus dispute and the island's application to join the EU.

The Greek Cypriot-led government favours EU entry, but Mr Denktash fears that EU membership would spell the death of his separatist republic.