Turkey hints at strike on Cypriot missiles

Alarm over the escalating crisis has spurred on mediation efforts. Tony Barber reports

The international crisis over Cyprus deepened yesterday as Turkey and its Turkish Cypriot clients piled more pressure on the Greek Cypriots not to deploy new Russian missiles in their sector of the island. "If they are deployed, we will do what is needed, and if that means they need to be hit, they will be hit," Turkey's Foreign Minister, Tansu Ciller, said in Ankara.

Blaming the Greek government for the crisis, she added: "Greece is the country which undoubtedly bears most responsibility for this aggressive policy."

The tough language made little impact either on Greece or on the Greek Cypriot-led government of Cyprus, which is adamant that it will go ahead with plans to buy the S-300 surface-to-air missile system. However, diplomats said there was still scope for a negotiated solution to the problem, as it could take many months for the missiles to arrive from Russia.

The first effort at international mediation will begin tomorrow, when a senior US official, Carey Cavanaugh, is due in Cyprus for talks with both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The US State Department, alarmed at the sudden rise in tensions on the divided island, has criticised the missile purchase but warned Turkey that a pre-emptive military strike would be unacceptable.

If the missiles are installed, their 90-mile range would enable the Greek Cypriots to attack Turkish aircraft in Turkey's airspace as well as that of Cyprus. The Turks are hinting at various military counter-measures, ranging from the destruction of the missile launch pads to a blockade of Cyprus.

In a statement distributed by the Turkish foreign ministry yesterday, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, mentioned another option when he threatened to take over Varosha, a disputed area that has been sealed off since Turkey's 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Most property in Varosha, which lies just south of the Turkish-held resort of Famagusta, is owned by Greek Cypriots.

The confrontation over the missiles has erupted at the start of a year that was supposed to see the launch of a concerted international effort to settle the Cyprus dispute. The US, Britain, other European Union countries and the United Nations were all hoping to see direct talks this spring between Mr Denktash and the Greek Cypriot leader, President Glafcos Clerides.

The prospects for such talks have not completely collapsed, but it is hard to see how face-to-face negotiations could start as long as the missile crisis remains unresolved. Mr Clerides has not met Mr Denktash since 1994 and says there is no point in arranging another meeting unless his rival is prepared to make substantive compromises.

Even before the missiles crisis, the political and military climate on Cyprus did not appear to favour a diplomatic breakthrough. In the worst violence since 1974, five people - four Greek Cypriots and one Turkish Cypriot - were killed last year in clashes along the UN buffer zone dividing the two sectors.

The missiles deal with Russia represents the Cyprus government's first serious attempt at building a credible air defence system after 22 years of Turkish superiority in the air. The government has not disclosed how many missiles it is buying, but they are part of a steady defence build- up that has been closely co-ordinated with Greece.

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