By Stefanos Evripidou
CYPRUS is ready to take in 10,000 foreign nationals a day who may flee from the Syrian crisis, as long as a similar number leave the island every 48 hours, said Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides yesterday.
Kasoulides yesterday met with cabinet colleagues from the ministries of defence, interior, justice and communications to discuss the unfolding crisis in Syria for a second time in as many days.
With a surgical strike on Syrian military targets by American, French and possibly British forces looking increasingly likely, the Cypriot authorities are preparing for the potential mass evacuation of European and third country national residents of Syria and Lebanon.
The ministers had met on Wednesday to discuss planning and coordination for implementation of the national plan‘Estia’, involving the repatriation of Cypriot nationals and mass evacuation of foreign nationals from neighbouring countries in the troubled region via Cyprus.
Yesterday’s meeting was also attended by head of the National Guard Lieutenant-general Stylianos Nasis.
Kasoulides highlighted that the preparations underway were being made as a precautionary measure.
“Cyprus is offered as a country of stability, security and peace in the region,” he said.
“We are ready to accept daily 10,000 people provided that within 48 hours, 10,000 leave for their final destinations.”
Kasoulides said there was no limit to how long Cyprus could carry out this process, as long as the numbers coming in and going out remained the same and for the same set time period.
Entry points for foreign nationals will be Larnaca and Limassol ports as well as the two international airports in Larnaca and Paphos.
The authorities are considering using the site of the old Larnaca airport for accommodation purposes, along with other sites.
The foreign minister confirmed that he met with British, American and French diplomats on Wednesday, “not in their capacity as permanent members of the UN Security Council, but as possible participants in a coalition of the willing in a possible military operation in Syria following use of chemical weapons in that country”.
Given Cyprus’ close location to Syria and the potential involvement of Britain in any attack on Syrian government targets, there has been some concern that the presence of British bases on the island is creating unnecessary risks for its people.
The minister played down fears of any attack on Cyprus, saying: “We are taking all necessary measures, including the Republic of Cyprus, for a completely distant and totally unlikely possibility.”
He referred to the arrival of six RAF Typhoon jets to Britain’s Akrotiri air base as a precautionary, defensive measure to boost air defence capabilities of the bases “and in the event of a mistake, any neighbouring areas”.
He quickly added that the chances of any such attack were extremely remote.
A spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence said the military jets were defensive assets that would operate in an air-to-air role only, not in any military action against Syria, implying that the Typhoons could be used to deal with any missiles should they come this way.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean is slowly filling up with British, American and Russian warships and submarines, each with their own capabilities.
Responding to criticism from certain political quarters about use of the bases, Kasoulides said he would not engage in a domestic political debate while the crisis was ongoing.
At the same time, he reiterated the government’s position that “use of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical weapons cannot remain without consequences”, confirming the clear shift in Cypriot foreign policy towards Western security interests.
Using chemical weapons on women, children and non-combatants should not be allowed, he said.
But it is not for “small Cyprus” to decide who should suffer the consequences and how, he added.
Regarding the repatriation of Cypriots living in the area’s hotspots, the foreign ministry’s consular affairs department head Stavros Avgoustides said yesterday there are around 50 Cypriots in mixed marriages in Syria and around 1,000 in Lebanon.
“We will help towards the repatriation of any citizen, wherever that citizen is and we will make any arrangements necessary to bring them back,” he said.
Asked if there was a possibility for of an influx of Syrian nationals fleeing to Cyprus, Avgoustides said he did not believe so since for practical reasons they will choose to cross by land to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
“If a large number pass through to Lebanon, we cannot exclude the possibility of them coming to Cyprus.”
He also did not rule out Syrian nationals coming to Cyprus from the coastal areas of their country. “We will monitor the situation,” he said.