Turkish army to reopen Cyprus beachfront sealed off since 1974

Varosha (Cyprus) (AFP) –

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Turkish troops prepared Thursday to partially reopen the Cyprus seaside resort of Varosha, sealed off since its Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled in 1974, sparking controversy days before a Turkish Cypriot election.

The move at the former holiday paradise turned ghost-town threatened to further inflame tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has been engaged in a bitter maritime disputes with Greece and Cyprus.

The army was expected to open a new gate at the northern end of the fenced zone to allow public access for the first time since Turkish troops occupied the island's northern third more than four decades ago following a Greek Cypriot coup seeking to annex Cyprus to Greece.

A seaside suburb of the historic city of Famagusta, Varosha was Cyprus's premier resort in its early 1970s heyday, frequented by Hollywood stars and other celebrities.

But the Turkish invasion prompted a mass exodus of the city's Greek Cypriot inhabitants, consolidating an ethnic divide that has persisted to this day.

The only regular visitors to Varosha have been Turkish troops guarding the fenced zone's southern limit where it abuts Cyprus government-held territory and the occasional UN peacekeeping patrol.

Turkish Cypriot prime minister Ersin Tatar announced the reopening on Tuesday after talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The move was widely criticised as an attempt by Ankara to sway Sunday's presidential election in the nationalist's favour.

Tatar, whose National Unity Party (UBP) is the largest in the breakaway state's parliament, is challenging dovish incumbent Mustafa Akinci in the vote, which was delayed from April by the coronavirus pandemic.

Opinion polls suggest the incumbent is likely to win an expected second-round runoff against Tatar after the rest of the field has been eliminated.

Akinci strongly criticised the manner of Varosha's reopening, describing it as an act of partisanship by Ankara that was likely to complicate Turkish Cypriot relations with the international community.

"These measures are aimed solely at boosting the chances of one candidate," he said, adding that they were a "mistake that will put the Turkish Cypriot people in a difficult situation on the international stage."

Akinci led the Turkish Cypriot delegation to the last round of UN-backed reunification talks which collapsed in Switzerland in July 2017.

As leader of the island's minority community, he is the only Turkish Cypriot official to have international status, but has difficult relations with Ankara, the only government which recognises the breakaway state in the north.

- 'Flagrant violation' -

The Turkish Cypriots have long considered unilaterally reopening Varosha as a means of jump-starting talks.

But they have previously always held back in the face of opposition from the island's internationally recognised government and the international community.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said he regarded the partial reopening of the Varosha beachfront as a "flagrant violation of international law and the resolutions of the UN Security Council".

Greek Cypriot protests were planned along the UN-patrolled armistice line that divides the island.

Greece warned that it would join fellow EU member Cyprus in a new push for the bloc to impose sanctions on Turkey.

"Turkey must take a step back. If it does not, the issue will be discussed by EU leaders next week," said government spokesman Stelios Petsas.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was "very concerned" about the reopening and stressed the "urgency of restoring confidence and not of creating greater divisions".

Even if an eventual settlement between the two communities makes the redevelopment of Varosha a possibility, it is likely to take many years.

The luxury hotels that were a favoured haunt of Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Varosha's heyday have long since decayed beyond repair.

A master plan for their demolition and the construction of a new resort will have to be drawn up that respects the property rights of those who fled.

Without the legitimacy that can only come with a settlement, it is unlikely that the huge investments required will ever be raised.

UN Security Council resolutions and successive UN-backed peace plans have all called for Varosha's displaced inhabitants to be allowed to return, whether under UN administration as an interim measure or under Greek Cypriot administration as part of a comprehensive settlement.