March 8, 2007 / 10:27 PM / in 12 years

Greek Cypriots begin removing Nicosia barrier

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Greek Cypriots on Thursday began dismantling a key part of the Green Line barrier which has divided the island’s capital for more than 40 years and asked Turkey to respond by removing its troops from the area.

“Tonight we have demolished the checkpoint on our side,” Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos told reporters in Brussels.

But he made clear no civilian would cross the barrier on the divided Mediterranean island before Turkey removed its military from the area.

“If the troops are not withdrawn and the buildings on either side of the street are not strengthened there cannot be a passage,” he said.

Witnesses said heavy machinery rumbled along the narrow thoroughfare of Ledra Street in the heart of Nicosia’s commercial district on the Mediterranean island. Two trucks carrying debris were seen leaving the area.

They said they could hear drilling in the vicinity of the five-metre-high concrete barrier stretching across the street but could not see any activity due to green plastic sheeting that had been put up.

RESTRICTIONS EASED

The wall, stacked with sandbags, is a popular vantage point to view Nicosia’s buffer zone, an abandoned alley of shops and homes civilians are not allowed to enter.

Turkish Cypriot authorities eased restrictions on visits in 2003 and five crossing points have been erected since between the north and south of Cyprus.

The United Nations, which has for decades tried to reunite the island in a federation, said it hoped the border crossing would open soon.

“Our hope is that this will lead to the opening of the Ledra street crossing in the immediate future,” said Nick Birnback, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department.

In December, Turkish Cypriots dismantled a footbridge on the other side of the wall from where the Greek Cypriots were now removing the concrete barrier.

The Cypriot government had protested at the time, saying security issues had to be considered before the bridge could be torn down.

Ledra Street cuts across the cease-fire line which has divided Nicosia’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot residents since intercommunal violence in the 1960s, and a Turkish invasion in 1974 that was triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.

Cyprus remains a stumbling block to Turkey’s EU aspirations and a source of tension with neighbouring Greece. Greek Cypriots voted down a U.N. re-unification plan shortly before joining the EU in 2004.

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