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Government plays down Syria fears

AKEL and its youth movement EDON, last night protested against plans for US military strikes on Syria


By Stefanos Evripidou

THE GOVERNMENT was at pains yesterday to stress the role of Cyprus as a centre of “stability and peace” in the region, following media reports of British, Turkish and Syrian war planes flying over Cyprus.

Government spokesman Christos Stylianides and Defence Minister Fotis Fotiou both tried to play down fears whipped up in the media over fighter jet movement over the island, highlighting that Cyprus is a safe destination and a centre of stability and peace, particularly during peak summer tourism months.

The Daily Mail wrote on Sunday that two RAF Typhoon jets were scrambled from Britain’s RAF Akrotiri air base in Cyprus last week to urgently investigate Syrian planes that had crossed into international airspace.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed that unidentified planes legally crossed into Cypriot skies from the east of the country last Monday, triggering the rapid response of the British military jets.

The unidentified planes were believed to have been Russian-made Sukhoi Su-24s, a heavily-armed fighter bomber that can reach Cyprus from Syria in just 15 minutes, said the Daily Mail.

A spokesman for the UK MoD said the unidentified aircraft were flying legally in international airspace and no intercept was required.

However, the behaviour of the aircraft allegedly led Turkey to scramble two F-16 jets from their base in Incirlik, Turkey, to support the investigation.

The Sunday Express wrote that Syria sent jets to taunt Cyprus, quoting an RAF source saying: “It seems that this incident may have been a case of a goad-and-probe sortie by a Syrian air force acting more brazenly than ever after recent inaction by the West.”

While Britain’s House of Commons ruled out any military action by its armed forces, the UK is still involved in “non-kinetic” operations, focused on electronic counter measures, monitoring Syrian air force movements and communication intercepts gathered at the British ‘Pluto’ signals base on Mount Olympus in Troodos, wrote the Sunday Express.
Meanwhile, local daily Phileleftheros yesterday reported that a French frigate was seen anchored southeast of Larnaca. It also claimed that French and American planes were using Akrotiri airbase.

According to the Daily Mail, Akrotiri, one of Britain’s largest overseas bases, is home to more than 1,300 personnel, and was used in the air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011.

In a written statement, Stylianides reiterated yesterday that “Cyprus is a safe destination”.

“It is a centre of stability in the region with an important and active role in the field of providing humanitarian assistance and facilities to foreign citizens, who seek a safe shelter in cases of crises in our region.”

The country has proved in the past that it can play a stabilising and humanitarian role in the region of the southeastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, he added.

The spokesman clarified that any assistance Cyprus gives will be clearly limited to humanitarian efforts, adding that it has been given assurances that “under no circumstances will it constitute a base of military operations or a target of attacks”.

Responding to questions on the issue, Fotiou echoed similar sentiments, saying: “We are taking all the necessary measures.”

“Currently we are focusing on the humanitarian aspect of the whole issue, with a view to help and provide facilities to citizens of foreign countries who wish to use Cyprus” in the event they flee from Lebanon or Syria in the near future.

“If Cyprus was not a safe destination then it would not be chosen by all the countries which have asked for facilities to evacuate their citizens,” said Fotiou.

The minister noted that Cyprus is still in its peak tourist season, and called on people not to panic over foreign press reports.

Gathering outside the US embassy in Nicosia, the Cyprus peace council and opposition party AKEL and its youth movement, EDON, on Monday night protested against plans for US military strikes on Syria.

Protesters, carrying ‘Hands off Syria’ signs and chanting anti-war slogans, lit up candles to form the peace symbol.

Representatives of the protesters handed out a document to an embassy representative, in which they asked “for the people of Syria to solve themselves the issue of democratising their country” and to stop direct or indirect interventions in the country.

They also asked the US to stop using Cyprus as a base of operation for its wars, and respect Cypriots’ wish for peace.

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