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Cameron waits for MPs to OK Akrotiri launch pad

By Stefanos Evripidou

A VOTE in the British parliament on Friday will decide whether the UK’s military airbase in Akrotiri will be used for the first time since Cyprus’ independence as a direct launch pad for airstrikes against another country.

The Cypriot government’s implicit support for the airstrikes opens a new chapter in relations vis-a-vis the bases. Apart from enhancing Cyprus’ geostrategic role in the region, it also raises the prospect of retaliatory attacks on Cypriot soil, as well as possible repercussions on tourism revenues.

Prime Minister David Cameron received cabinet backing on Thursday for British participation in US-led airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq, paving the way for a parliamentary debate and vote at around 7pm Cyprus time Friday.

Cameron has recalled the UK parliament for a special session on whether the UK should join in international airstrikes against the IS, as requested by the Iraqi government. Thursday’s parliamentary motion explicitly excludes the use of ground troops and makes clear that extending air strikes to Syria would require a separate parliamentary vote.

According to the Guardian, Cameron will warn MPs that Britain is set to join a long but necessary war against Islamic State in Iraq. If he secures parliamentary approval, the paper reports that Britain could join coalition air strikes as soon as this weekend.

At present, UK military jets are flying intelligence gathering and humanitarian missions from the Akrotiri military airbase.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a UK defence ministry spokesman saying that the jets could be switched to a combat role “at short notice” if the order is given.

The Times reported that RAF Akrotiri is “gearing up for war”, noting that the base has long been used as a staging and supply post for Britain, in numerous wars in the region, from the first Gulf War in the 1990s to the recent conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

British troops have passed through Cyprus on the way to and from Afghanistan, while humanitarian missions and supplies have also been run from the island.

The Royal Air Force has flown surveillance missions over Iraq from Akrotiri, but fighter jets have never been launched from the island to carry out offensive airstrikes.

It is believed the last time the British bases were used as a launch pad was during the Suez crisis in the 1950s, when Cyprus was still a British colony.

According to one analyst, Britain does not need Cypriot approval to launch air strikes from the bases but has always been aware of Cypriot sensitivities on the issue.

However, last month, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kassoulides hinted that IS’ ferocity had changed government thinking on the matter.

The analyst said this was a result of a combination of factors: the government’s keen aim to highlight its strategic role in the region, the fact the Gulf states support the strikes, and the view that IS poses a genuine threat to the island.

In an interview with Sky News in August, Kasoulides said Britain would have to consult with him ahead of any airstrike in Iraq from Akrotiri but appeared certain that Nicosia would “not object to the use of the British Bases for any military operation against a terrorist organisation like this one which is the worst kind that we have ever met.”

According to The Times, a senior Cypriot official told the paper on Thursday: “We are 100 per cent in the fight against IS. There is no ambivalence on our part as to what we should do, how we should do it, in partnership with the European Union, in partnership with the United Kingdom, in partnership with the United States … We’re in the same strategic boat with our EU partners [on IS].”

Asked to comment on Thursday on reports suggesting France could use a Cypriot National Guard airbase to fly bombing missions against the militants, Defence minister Christoforos Fokaides said there was nothing to announce on this, but made clear Cyprus wants to do its part to tackle the threat.

“We are in consultation with our (EU) partners, we want to help tackle the threat stemming from the Islamic State organisation,” the defence minister said.

In an interview with Cyprus News Agency, High Commissioner Damian Roderic Todd said the British bases on the island play a “very important” role not just for the UK, but for the “shared security” of Cyprus, the UK and Europe.

The bases are “a very significant element in the way the UK and Cyprus are able to respond to tackle challenges they face”, he said.

It remains to be seen, however, how long the concerted effort against IS will last, and what impact this will have on Cyprus’ security.

According to the analyst, Cyprus may become more exposed as a result of airstrikes, but at the same time its intelligence service KYP enjoys close cooperation with western embassies on intelligence matters. A more controversial view perhaps is that Cyprus actually feels safer from IS with the bases here.

Another matter that may come up in the future, depending on developments, is the potential impact on tourism as news channels churn out continuous updates on the declared war against IS.

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