Roads linking the two sides of Cyprus were jammed for miles on Friday with thousands of people anxious to visit the other side for the first time after the Turkish invasion and occupation. Thousands of travelers, some shouting for joy, have crossed the checkpoint dividing the capital, Nicosia, since a travel ban was lifted this week. On the fourth day since Turkish authorities lifted the ban, Greek Cypriots lined up for miles, some spending the night in their cars, to ensure passage to the Turkish-occupied north of the island.
Greek Cypriots took advantage of the Orthodox Easter holidays to make the trip. Police said the crowd waiting to cross on Good Friday – estimated at more than 10,000 people – was the largest it has been since the ban was lifted. More were expected throughout the rest of the four-day Easter holiday.
Hundreds of Turkish Cypriots also lined up to pass through the checkpoint.
Many refugees from the village of Afaneia will spend Monday after Easter at their occupied village.
The Cyprus government has welcomed the easing, but played down its significance, calling it an attempt by the unrecognized Turkish breakaway state to gain international sympathy following intense criticism for rejecting a U.N. reunification plan last month.
Rauf Denktash, leader of the breakaway state, has called his decision to lift the travel ban “an experiment.”
Let us digest it and see where we go from here,” he said.
Newspapers and TV stations on both sides have given extensive coverage to the poignant one-day visits of people to their former homes – and the warm welcomes they received – as evidence of the desire of people on both sides for reconciliation.
The English-language Cyprus Weekly called it “a clear indication that the people as a whole are eagerly waiting for the day of reunification, return to normality and living together as free and equal citizens of the wider European Union family.”
Cyprus has been split into a Greek Cypriot controlled south and the occupied north since Turkey invaded in 1974 after an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is only recognized by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops there.
Nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled or were driven from their homes. The Turkish side has allowed only a few to cross for brief visits.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been pushing the sides toward a unifying peace deal, and conditions of the island’s future membership in the European Union hinge on its reconciliation.
Under an agreement signed last week, the island will join the European Union on May 1, 2004, but EU laws and benefits will not apply to the occupied north pending reunification.
The US has welcomed the easing of restrictions on free movement in Cyprus, stressing however that the ultimate goal remains a negotiated political settlement that would last. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington backs the principle of freedom of movement and is supportive of genuine measures aiming at increasing contact between the island’s two communities. He advocated the resumption of peace negotiations on the basis of a UN proposal for a comprehensive settlement.
Boucher made these statements after Wednesday’s crossings by some 5,000 Cypriots, from both sides of the divide, into the northern Turkish-occupied areas and the southern government-controlled part of the country.
The crossings took place after the illegal Turkish Cypriot regime announced an easing of restrictions on the freedom of movement it had imposed for years on both Turkish Cypriots as well as Greek Cypriots, in an attempt to prove right its mistaken belief that the two communities can no longer live together.
”On the crossings, the reports I saw indicated that people had, indeed, been going both ways across the green line and that’s a good thing. We strongly support the principle of freedom of movement and we welcome genuine measures that have the potential to increase contact and understanding between the two communities, and thus, improve the atmosphere in which to create a just and durable settlement,” Boucher said.
He noted that numerous crossings of the Green Line took place on Wednesday by Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and said ”’we look forward to learning more about the measures and procedures for the implementation of these crossings.”
”The United States remains strongly committed to seeking a just and durable settlement to the Cyprus problem in the context of the UN Good Offices mission. We welcome any measures that contribute to that outcome,” he said.
The US, he added, believe ”the way to a comprehensive settlement that’s called for in UN Security Council Resolution 1475 is for the sides to resume talks under the auspices of the UN Good Offices mission and on the basis of the Secretary General’s just and comprehensive peace plan.”