NICOSIA (Reuters) - An errant missile struck Cyprus early on Monday, skimming the densely populated capital Nicosia and crashing on a mountainside in what authorities described as a spillover from strikes between Israel and Syria.
The explosion occurred around 1 a.m. (2200 GMT Sunday) in the region of Tashkent, also known as Vouno, some 20 kms (12 miles) northeast of Nicosia, with the impact starting a fire and heard for miles around.
There were no casualties. But it caused widespread concern on both sides of the ethnically-split island and brought calls for warring parties to respect their neighbours’ safety.
An Israeli air strike was underway against Syria at the time. Syrian state media said the Syrian air defences had fired in response.
“It is understood that a missile fired from Syria fell here by accident, as a result of being fired in an uncontrolled way by batteries ... in response to the intense attacks yesterday evening by Israel,” Kudret Ozersay, the Turkish Cypriot foreign minister, told a news conference.
“Based on our initial assessment, it is the remains of a missile which is known as S-200 in the Russian system and SA-5 in the NATO system,” he added.
In a Facebook post earlier, Ozersay said the explosion was thought to have occurred before impact because there were no craters, and debris was found at several different points.
Cyprus lies west of Syria, and the impact site about 50 kilometres (31 miles) inland.
Israeli warplanes fired missiles targeting Syrian military positions in Homs - around 310 kilometres (193 miles) from Nicosia - and the Damascus outskirts overnight in an attack that killed at least four civilians and wounded another 21.
The freak incident was the first time that Cyprus has been caught in the crosshairs of military operations in the Middle East despite its proximity.
“Undoubtedly we invite Syria, Israel and another countries in the region to take into account the human and material security of neighbouring countries, to take the necessary measures and for everyone to behave calmly,” said Ozersay, who is also deputy prime minister of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state recognised only by Ankara.
The incident was a wake-up call to islanders, said UniteCyprusNow, a pro-unity group.
“The illusion that a permanent division on land .. will protect us from crises has been shattered with the missile that landed on our head last night,” it said.
Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.
The ageing S-200 is a surface to air missile which analysts said could have a range of up to 400 kilometres (249 miles).
It is one of the precursors of the S-400, the missile system Turkey plans to buy from Russia and which has rattled relations with Washington.
Residents told Cypriot media they saw a light in the sky then three loud explosions were heard for miles around, which many initially thought was a plane crash.
Tashkent is a small village in the foothills of a mountain range rimming northern Cyprus. Authorities evacuated some homes.
Additonal reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Can Sezer; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Raissa Kasolowsky and Andrew Cawthorne