Turkish flotilla sails into missile row

Show of solidarity heightens confrontation fears, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
Famagusta - Below the Venetian ramparts of Famagusta the Turkish frigate Fatih and two assault boats were moored to the quayside as a warning to the Greek Cypriot government not to try and change the military balance on the island by buying Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

The arrival of the flotilla, supported by a Turkish submarine in international waters, was greeted by 5,000 cheering Turkish Cypriots at the weekend and is the latest sign of the escalating confrontation between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

Turkish naval officers were careful to stress their peaceful intentions by releasing a flock of doves. There was no offer to show off the ship's torpedoes, short-range missiles or its five-inch gun. The fact that the Fatih, normally based in the Sea of Marmara, was at Famagusta, a few miles from the Greek Cypriot front-line, was threat enough. In the frigate's ward room President Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, had gathered his cabinet and the Turkish military leadership on the island in a show of solidarity. In an interview with The Independent he was not optimistic. He said the naval visit showed that "Turkish Cypriots are not an isolated community on a Greek island". If the Greek Cypriot government did install the SA-300 missiles, with a range of 100 miles, then confrontation "will be unavoidable".

President Denktash was derisive about the attempt earlier in the month by Carey Cavnaugh, the head of the US State Department's Office of Southern European Affairs, to defuse the crisis by implying that President Glafcos Clerides of Cyprus had accepted a 16-month moratorium on delivering the missiles. This was immediately denied by Mr Clerides. "Had Clerides shut his mouth he would have been saved by the Americans," said Mr Denktash. "But it would have been a dirty trick on us."

It is not that Northern Cyprus is short of symbols of Turkish military and political support. There are 35,000 Turkish troops on the island as there have been since Turkey invaded in 1974 in the wake of a coup led by Greek army officers seeking union with Greece. On the side of the mountain facing Nicosia a Turkish flag the size of 11 football pitches has been painted. "It is the world's largest flag," said Hussein Alkan, the local correspondent of the Turkish daily Hurriyet. "We have applied to have it included in the next issue of the Guinness Book of Records."

There was only a small crowd of Turkish Cypriots standing on the quay as President Denktash arrived. "I feel more safe with them here," said Devrim Relen, a 19-year-old student, pointing at the Fatih and the assault boats Dogan and Gurbet. "Hatred between the two communities is definitely deteriorating [sic]," said another Turkish Cypriot. He said that forming a federal republic with the Greek Cypriots, which he had once favoured, was no longer feasible. "People are beginning to fear the crisis may explode," he added. "My mother-in-law was going to repair her shop, but she has put it off because she thinks there may be a war."

On board the Fatih, President Denktash said that a war would be disastrous to both communities, but he had no doubt who would win it. He said: "Sixty- five million Turks 40 miles away, having strategic interests in Cyprus, will not allow Greece to take over Cyprus in any circumstances. This is so obvious." If the Russian anti-aircraft missiles were delivered he believed Turkey would carry out its threat to destroy them.

It is doubtful that President Clerides was ever wholly convinced that the anti-aircraft missiles would change the military equation on Cyprus. During the 1974 invasion the Greek army was unable to do anything to stop the Turkish attack. Despite the Cypriot government's three-year-old defence pact with Greece, Turkish military superiority remains overwhelming along the 112-mile long "green line" which bisects the island.

Not in doubt is the willingness of Russia to sell more weapons to Cyprus whatever the political consequences. At the weekend a Russian general said: "Moscow might sign a contract to supply the Republic of Cyprus with the Tor-M1 missile system." This is a short-range mobile missile. The Defence Ministry in Nicosia denied it has any such plans.

If the purpose of the arms purchases was to reawaken the international interest in the Cyprus problem then it has certainly succeeded. The price has been high. Greek reinforcements could never reach Cyprus in time to stop the Turkish army taking over the whole island. Increased tension also undermines Cypriot hopes of entering the European Union on which talks are due to begin in the middle of 1998.