NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Angry Turkish Cypriots punched and kicked a group of international peacekeepers who obstructed crews working on a road that would encroach on a U.N.-controlled buffer zone in ethnically divided Cyprus, the U.N. said Friday.
It said the attack happened as peacekeepers stood in the way of work crews building a road to connect the village of Arsos, in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, with the mixed Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot village of Pyla, inside the buffer zone and abutting the Greek Cypriot south, where the island’s internationally recognized government is seated.
A video seen by The Associated Press showed scores of Turkish Cypriots accosting a much smaller group of Slovak and British U.N. soldiers trying to hold them back from starting work inside the buffer zone. Some peacekeepers suffered blows to the face as they linked arms to push back the advancing Turkish Cypriots. The U.N. said three soldiers had to be treated for minor injuries.
The violence constitutes a serious escalation of tensions not seen on the island in years.
The road would give Turkish Cypriots direct access to Pyla by circumventing a checkpoint on the northern fringe of a British military base, one of two bases that the U.K. retained after Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960.
Greek Cypriots perceive the road construction as a move with a military purpose at a sensitive spot along the buffer zone that spans 180 kilometers (120 miles).
“Threats to the safety of U.N. peacekeepers and damage to U.N. property are unacceptable and constitute a serious crime under international law which will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” the peacekeeping force, known as UNFICYP, said in a statement.
UNFICYP spokesman Aleem Siddique told The Associated Press that the U.N. wouldn’t back down from continuing to “block or frustrate construction of the road by nonviolent means,” despite Friday’s assault. He said construction of the road would violate the forces’ mandate of maintaining the status quo inside the buffer zone.
Turkish Cypriot authorities blamed U.N. peacekeepers for the altercation, calling their actions “unacceptable” and dismissing the UNFICYP statement as “unfounded allegations.”
They accused UNFICYP of being “biased” toward the Turkish Cypriot side and said the force should “immediately cease” its efforts to physically obstruct construction of a “humanitarian” project.
EU Council President Charles Michel and the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell both condemned the assaults and urged a de-escalation of the situation.
The embassies of the U.K., France and the United Nations issued a joint statement expressing “serious concern” over construction of the road, calling for an immediate halt to the work and condemning the assaults as “completely unacceptable”.
Maintaining the status quo of the buffer zone is enshrined in the U.N. mission’s mandate since 1974, when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup mounted by Greek junta-backed supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey, which maintains more than 35,000 troops in the island’s northern third, recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence.
The U.N. says both sides have repeatedly infringed on the buffer zone over the years. But this road construction is seen by the Cyprus government as “an attempt at a very serious violation of the status quo.”
Cyprus government spokesman Constantinos Letymbiotis condemned what he called the “organized violence,” adding that the government is in touch with the U.N., the EU and other governments to prevent “Turkish designs.”
The situation is likely to hamper the Cypriot government’s efforts to restart negotiations to resolve the island’s division.