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Media Watch 2004

20 February 2004
Source: Times
Author: Michael Theodoulou
Comment: The following article appeared in the Times of London on 20 February 2004.
Britain keeps last outpost in UN scheme to reunite Cyprus
"One reason why Cyprus is so important to Britain is its role in gathering military intelligence, which antennae suck from the ether. It is widely believed that much of it is shared with America, giving Washington a high-value asset..."

ON BRITAIN’S military bases in Cyprus, Union Jacks flutter outside police stations and streets have names such as Clarendon Avenue and Knightsbridge Road. The illusion of Middle England is undermined only by the biblical landscape, the sweltering heat and glimpses of the turquoise Mediterranean.

Yet it is likely to survive the latest push for reunification of the divided island, which began in earnest yesterday with talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders.

Forty-four years after Cyprus gained independence, a United Nations plan to reunite the island recognises Britain’s tenure over one of its last colonial outposts.

Rarely have Britain’s military facilities on Cyprus had such vital strategic importance. The value of the bases as staging and supply posts at the volatile edge of the world’s richest oil region was reinforced during two Gulf wars. The western sovereign base area of Akrotiri, nicknamed the “kebab posting” by airmen, is the biggest RAF facility outside Britain.

But having its presence enshrined in plans to reunite Turkish and Greek-held territory is a prize that Britain is unlikely to trumpet. The bases are largely unloved and widely viewed as anachronistic.

Klearchos Kyriakides, a law lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “History suggests that one reason why the British Government is so supportive of the UN plan is that it reinforces the 1960 treaties which preserve the UK’s vital strategic interests on the island.

“History also suggests that British forces are reluctant to relinquish a presence which they have maintained since 1878.”

Reunification negotiations between President Papadopoulos and Rauf Denktas, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, opened in Nicosia yesterday amid unprecedented optimism. The UN hopes for a deal before the island enters the European Union in May.

“It was a very constructive session with ample goodwill and a businesslike spirit from the two sides,” Alvaro de Soto, the UN’s chief Cyprus envoy, said.

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN, believes that there is a real chance of success. He has agreed to play matchmaker, a role he took on only when both sides accepted his terms for a negotiating process that, for once, cannot end inconclusively. Mr Annan will settle any issues the two sides cannot resolve and a final deal will be put to separate referendums in April.

A “yes” vote from both sides will enable the Turkish Cypriots to join the EU alongside the Greek Cypriots, who are guaranteed entry. The UN plan envisages a loose federal system for Cyprus with broad autonomy for the two communities.

Turkey would have to withdraw most of its 35,000 troops from northern Cyprus. Greece and Turkey would be allowed to keep up to 6,000 troops on the island but will have to pull out once Turkey joins the EU. Eventually, Cyprus will host troops from just one Nato member: Britain.

One reason why Cyprus is so important to Britain is its role in gathering military intelligence, which antennae suck from the ether. It is widely believed that much of it is shared with America, giving Washington a high-value asset in its war on terrorism.

In the event of a Cyprus settlement, Britain will relinquish almost half of the 98 square miles of prime real estate covered by its two bases. But Greeks are wary of Britons bearing gifts. George Lanitis, a veteran diarist, said: “It’s not an act of generosity, for heaven’s sake. Have you ever seen a British government showing generosity to an ex-colony?”

Cynics point out that Britain will only hand over land that it does not need militarily, such as that inhabited by “troublesome” villagers who caused disruption a few years ago by planting potatoes on a live firing range.

British officials insist that there will be no troop reductions and that any handover will not reduce the operational effectiveness of the bases. Some claim that many Cypriots feel more secure having the British military presence.

Britain has long stood accused of sowing the seeds of the Cyprus problem by pursuing a divide-and-rule policy in the 1950s during an anti-colonial struggle by Greek Cypriots.

Britain, a guarantor of the island’s independence, was also resented for failing to act in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a right-wing coup in Nicosia inspired by the military junta then ruling Greece. Sniping at the British military presence is a popular pastime in the local press but the bases have met scant political opposition over the years.

A Greek Cypriot official once asked Margaret Thatcher when she would return the bases to Cyprus. She is said to have quipped: “When you give us back North London.”"