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Back to Switzerland for Cyprus peace deal talks

June 26, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — It’s back to Switzerland for Cyprus peace talks. This time the rival leaders of the ethnically-divided island will be meeting at the secluded Swiss resort of Crans-Montana. Previous summits were held in Mont Pelerin and Geneva.

The talks kick off Wednesday and are due to last at least a week. They will likely determine whether a deal to reunify Cyprus, which is divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south, is possible or not.

The key issue is how security will be overseen if and when Cyprus is reunified as a federation. Other issues still to be resolved include how much territory the Greek and Turkish Cypriot federated states would be made up of and the process for allowing tens of thousands of displaced people to reclaim lost homes and property.

Here’s a look at what will be at play at the peace summit:

MILITARY MUSCLE

The issue is one of the toughest in the complex negotiations that officials say have made significant headway in the last two years and has been left to be tackled last.

It revolves around the 35,000-plus troops that Turkey has kept in place since 1974 when it invaded Cyprus following a coup aimed at union with Greece. Turkey mounted the military action, invoking intervention rights that were granted under Cyprus’ 1960 constitution to the island’s “guarantors”: Turkey, Greece and ex-colonial ruler Britain.

Cyprus’ Greek Cypriot president, Nicos Anastasiades, and the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci, both tackled the security conundrum in Geneva during January talks. The foreign ministers of the “guarantor” nations also took part.

But that meeting dissolved relatively quickly amid recriminations that neither side was unwilling to put its cards on the table and get down to hard bargaining.

TROOPS, NO TROOPS

The Greek Cypriot side wants military intervention rights expunged and Turkish troops gone to eliminate what is sees as an existential threat and Ankara’s instrument of control over the island. Its argument is that no European Union member country would ever need third-country security guarantees.

Anastasiades has proposed an international police force to oversee post-reunification security with the U.N. Security Council using its clout to back it up.

The minority Turkish Cypriots see Turkey’s troops as their sole assurance of protection in case a peace deal unravels and want them to stay.

Akinci has said a rethink over the need for troops could happen around 15 years after reunification. Turkish Cypriot and Turkish officials insist a Greek Cypriot call for a full troop withdrawal is a non-starter.

An alternative proposal that’s been floated unofficially would see small contingents of Greek and Turkish troops deployed on the island after a deal, while intervention rights would be amended to remove any clause for unilateral action.

GO-BETWEEN

Any compromise on security must pass muster with Greek and Turkish Cypriots who will vote on any peace accord in separate referendums before it would be implemented.

U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide told The Associated Press in April that the world body has helped put together a compromise formula to overcome the security hurdle. He said the formula was the result of consultation with the Cypriot leaders, the European Union and the “guarantors.”

The Greek Cypriot side has insisted on prioritizing a security deal before other issues are tackled. Turkish Cypriots said all issues must be discussed concurrently as part of an overarching bartering process.

To accommodate both sides, negotiations at Crans-Montana will be split into two rooms — security in one, and everything else in the other.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The aim at Crans-Montana is for the two sides to achieve a breakthrough on an agreed peace accord framework. More work will be needed over the weeks and months ahead to fill in the gaps and prepare the ground for putting the completed deal to a vote.

Although it’s said the talks will be open-ended, officials say it’ll likely last a week to 10 days. And timing is essential.

The Cyprus government is set to start promising exploratory oil and gas drilling off the island’s southern shore in mid-July amid strong opposition from Turkey, and the Turkish Cypriots who warn of a potential “crisis” if drilling proceeds.

Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots say a “unilateral” Greek Cypriot search for gas flouts their rights to the island’s offshore mineral wealth. The Cypriot government insists drilling is it’s sovereign right and that any hydrocarbon proceeds will be shared after a peace deal is sealed, signed and delivered.

Cyprus uses high-tech tools to speed search for its missing

June 23, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — With glue gun in hand, Turkish Cypriot anthropologist Sinem Hossoz meticulously pieces together tiny fragments — the pulverized skull of a child, one of the youngest victims of conflict on ethnically divided Cyprus.

Paul-Henri Arni, the U.N.-appointed member to the Committee on Missing Persons, says such things must be done. “It’s for the dignity of the dead,” he says, but also to spare relatives the shock of seeing a smashed skull when the remains are returned to them.

“The skull in all cultures, including here, is the center of the human person, it’s the soul,” Arni said at the CMP laboratory on the grounds of the disused Nicosia airport straddling a U.N. controlled buffer zone where skeletal remains are assembled for identification.

With international donations, the CMP has worked diligently for 11 years to help heal a gaping wound from this east Mediterranean island’s tortured past and foster its future reconciliation. It has unearthed and identified more than a third of the 2,001 Greek and Turkish Cypriots who vanished during fighting between the two sides in the 1960s and during the summer of 1974. That’s when a coup aiming at union with Greece triggered a Turkish invasion that split the island into a breakaway, Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized south.

Time is working against the committee. Potential eyewitnesses who could help pinpoint graves are dying out, while unceasing construction sometimes makes such burial sites forever inaccessible. To expedite its work, Arni says the CMP is now sifting through archival information it has for the first time gained access to from the U.N., the International Committee of the Red Cross and some six countries that had dispatched peacekeeping troops to Cyprus at the time of the fighting.

It’s also investing in new technologies like the Geographic Information System, or GIS, that links all information gathered from archives, investigators and eyewitnesses to give a more exact estimate of possible burial sites.

Gulden Plumer Kucuk, the CMP’s Turkish Cypriot member, says she expects the new approach will begin to produce results within a year. She estimates the archival search will boost the inflow of information by up to 20 percent.

“The important thing is that we do everything in our capacity … so when we turn our faces to the families, we should be able to say that we did everything for them,” she said. The decades-long agony of the relatives of the disappeared is what drives Romanos Liritsas, a Greek Cypriot researcher with the committee.

It’s “the humanitarian aspect that edges us to speed up, because the relatives have been waiting much too long to find their beloved ones,” says Liritsas, standing in a field in the northern, Turkish Cypriot half of the island where colleagues, acting on an tip, are searching for a missing soldier’s remains.

Greek Cypriot Eleni Kyriakou lived long enough to bury her son. The 88-year-old sat in a wheelchair at the head of the grave into which the small, wooden flag-draped coffin carrying the remains of her son Epiphanios was lowered — a burial with full military honors at Makedonitissa military cemetery.

The remains of Epiphanios, a 20-year-old second-lieutenant, were found along with those of five other comrades in a makeshift grave after vanishing on Aug. 15, 1974, during a retreat from of advancing Turkish troops.

A Turkish Cypriot man who recently recalled seeing the soldiers’ unburied bodies in a gully shortly after fighting ceased, said Sevgul Uludag, a Turkish Cypriot journalist who for years has been gathering information on the whereabouts of the missing. The Turkish Cypriot man was 7 years old at the time, riding atop a donkey led by his grandfather, who had buried the soldiers.

Epiphanios’ older brother Kyriakos said the back of his brother’s skull bore a small hole. “After 43 years, you can imagine the emotional pressure,” said Kyriakou. “When I saw the bones of my brother, I felt relief from this pressure.”

The CMP still encounters a strong unwillingness from some witnesses or even perpetrators to talk, despite promised immunity from prosecution. “We’re 100 percent sure that there are people that are still alive who are keeping information,” says Kucuk’s Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nestoras Nestoros. “We want them to understand that it is very, very useful for us and for the families that are still waiting and still looking for their loved ones.”

A public appeal for information has been made by the island’s Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, who will meet in late June in Geneva for a summit in continuing pursuit of a breakthrough deal reunifying the island. A similar appeal has been made by the island’s Christian and Muslim leaders.

Not all remains of the missing will be found, says Kucuk. In some instances, only partial skeletal remains will be returned to families. Some of the dead were left exposed on hilltops or buried in riverbeds, so their bones were scattered. Others may be buried under apartment buildings where the remains are inaccessible, although the CMP did dig up a private pool to get to the remains of two missing persons. In other instances, remains could have been dug up and reburied elsewhere, reinforcing the silence of perpetrators.

Nestoros says even a single bone from a missing person can offer some consolation to families. “It shows that this person has died,” he says. “This is an answer for the relatives.” Turkish Cypriot Raif Toluk is hopeful his family will soon find answers about his missing father. Working at the state telecommunications authority CyTA, Mehmet Raif vanished on Dec. 22, 1963. Toluk says his brothers were told their father was shot as he rode his bicycle home.

For 40 years, the family had heard nothing. Now Uludag’s investigative work has indicated that Mehmet Raif may be among a number of Turkish Cypriots buried in a mass grave. Toluk says an excavation at the site late last year unearthed the remains of seven people and that DNA results are pending.

“My mother died waiting, ‘He will come, he will come,'” says Toluk. “When you say ‘This is your father’ and we bury, I think we will relax. At least we will know that he’s there.”

Germany considering Jordan, Cyprus for anti-IS base

May 17, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s defense minister says her office has drafted a list of eight locations where it could move aircraft supporting the anti-IS mission if Turkey continues to block German lawmakers from visiting troops at the Incirlik base.

Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday a team is already in Jordan to assess a site there for its Tornado reconnaissance jets and a refueling plane, and Cyprus is also being considered. Nonetheless, she stressed talks with Turkey were still ongoing.

Germany has granted asylum to some soldiers Turkey believes were involved in a failed coup attempt last summer. That has prompted Turkey to block a request for German lawmakers to visit some 270 troops serving with the coalition against the Islamic State group at the Incirlik air base.

UN chief to meet rival Cyprus leaders in New York

May 31, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — United Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will meet the rival leaders of ethnically divided Cyprus at U.N. headquarters in New York amid faltering reunification talks, officials said Wednesday.

Cyprus government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said that the meeting Sunday evening will aim to carry out a review of the state of play in negotiations that are now at a standstill. Aleem Siddique, a U.N. spokesman in Cyprus, said the U.N. chief looks forward to welcoming the leaders to New York.

Last week, U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide broke off mediation efforts after the island’s Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci, failed to agree on how to move the peace process toward a final summit aiming for a comprehensive accord.

Guterres has intervened in an apparent bid to prevent the two year-old talks, which have made significant headway at reunifying the island as a federation, from unravelling. On Tuesday, Anastasiades warned that talks were now at risk of deadlock because of an insistence by Turkey and the breakaway Turkish Cypriots to keep Turkish troops deployed on the island even after a peace deal.

Turkey has maintained 35,000 troops in the country’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot north since mounting an invasion in 1974 in response to a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Greek Cypriots see the troops as a threat and want them removed as part of any peace deal. Anastasiades has proposed the deployment of an international police force to oversee security.

The minority Turkish Cypriots say a peace deal must include the deployment of Turkish troops they see as their only security guarantee. Anastasiades insists on prioritizing at a final summit in Geneva an agreement on withdrawing Turkish troops before resolving all other outstanding issues.

Akinci maintains that all issues should be discussed in a give-and-take process.

Greek, Turkish Cypriots link arms across border for peace

May 27, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Dozens of Greek and Turkish Cypriots have linked arms across a U.N.-controlled buffer zone cutting across ethnically divided Cyprus’ capital of Nicosia to voice their support for a reunification agreement.

Beating drums, blowing whistles and singing traditional Cypriot folk songs, the demonstrators said real peace lies in the hands of ordinary people from both sides of the divide as the Mediterranean island’s reunification talks appear to be faltering.

Protesters said Saturday’s event was to remind politicians not to let ordinary people down. On Friday, a U.N. envoy called off meditation efforts with the island’s Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci after failing to find “common ground” on convening a final summit for an overall reunification deal.

But officials insisted talks haven’t collapsed.

Cyprus reunification talks restart, tough challenges ahead

April 11, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Against the backdrop of Turkey’s referendum on expanding presidential powers, talks aimed at reunifying ethnically divided Cyprus were restarted Tuesday with rival leaders hoping to claw back diminished trust and lost momentum after a two-month halt.

But the United Nations-mediated negotiations still face difficult challenges, with the island’s Greek Cypriot president accusing the breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader of backpedaling on key issues at Turkey’s prompting after many months of solid progress.

The minority Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile, say Greek Cypriots pay lip service to their core demand of equal partnership in the running of an envisioned federation — especially on holding the federal presidency alternately.

It’s still unclear if talks can result in a deal both sides can rally behind. Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup mounted by supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the island’s north is recognized only by Turkey which keeps more than 35,000 troops there.

With talks delving deeper, bargaining has become more complicated. President Nicos Anastasiades said Turkish Cypriot conditions on how they’ll be represented in decision-making bodies would “paralyze” the state. Moreover, he said Turkey’s demand that its citizens be granted the freedom to relocate and transfer money, services and goods to Cyprus as part of any peace deal would mean “Cyprus’ takeover through peaceful means.”

Compounding the difficulties is Turkey’s condition for its troops and military intervention rights to stay in place after reunification, something that Turkish Cypriots say ensures their security but Greek Cypriots strongly reject.

Meanwhile, acrimony over legislation making a brief reference to a 1950 referendum on union with Greece mandatory in Greek Cypriot schools has sharpened divisions among Greek Cypriots. The legislation was reversed last week following Turkish Cypriot protests, but the move splintered Greek Cypriot opinion between those who saw it as necessary to get talks back on track and those who saw it as acquiescing to Turkey’s will.

Anastasiades called the legislation kerfuffle a pretext for Akinci to halt talks ahead of Sunday’s referendum on whether to concentrate more power in the hands of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sought to project toughness in order to woo the nationalist vote.

Divided Cyprus’ leaders conclude ‘historic’ map exchange

January 11, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — The rival leaders of ethnically divided Cyprus exchanged maps Wednesday outlining the zones the island’s Greek and Turkish communities would control in a hoped-for federation, the first time such a swap has occurred after decades of reunification talks.

The maps now have been locked in a United Nations vault due to the sensitive nature of the proposed boundaries, which indicate how many people displaced by the nation’s division may be eligible to reclaim lost homes and property relatively quickly.

Discussions to thrash out a single, compromise map will be scheduled for a later date, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said. He said it would be up to Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anasastaides and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to decide when those negotiations take place.

“This is not the end of the road,” Christodoulides told reporters. “This is the beginning of negotiations on a very important chapter of the Cyprus problem.” Turkish Cypriot spokesman Baris Burcu said both maps conformed to already agreed upon criteria for how much of the island’s land would go to the Turkish Cypriot zone — between 28.2 and 29.2 percent.

In the meantime, the talks will move in an international direction on Thursday. The foreign ministers of Cyprus’ so-called guarantors — Turkey, Greece and former colonial power Britain — are set to join a discussion on the pivotal issue of post-unification security arrangements.

Anastasiades and Akinci have been meeting in Geneva since Monday to discuss a number of outstanding issues that could restore unity to the island split by ethnic divisions for almost 43 years. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. Many residents were stripped of homes and property when Cyprus divided into an official Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish north where Turkey has more than 35,000 troops stationed.

Top leaders from the European Union, which counts Cyprus as a member, are also expected to join the talks Thursday that will concentrate on how to ensure and who will oversee post-settlement security.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters on Wednesday that the talks were “the very last chance to see the island being recomposed in a normal way.” However, United Nations envoy Espen Barth Eide, who is facilitating the talks, sought to downplay expectations. Eide said that the process remains on track to overcome major obstacles.

He pointed to “historic” advances happening at the summit, such as the exchange of boundary maps and the participation of the three guarantor powers at such a high-level. But a deal likely won’t emerge immediately from the summit since important technical details need to be sorted out before Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities can vote on an overall agreement, Eide said.

“So don’t expect that we will be walking home from Geneva — or rather flying — to Cyprus with a comprehensive settlement in our hands,” Eides told reporters. “But we will go home with a sense that it is coming.”

Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Raf Casert contributed from Brussels, Belgium.

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