By Evie Andreou
Scuffles broke out on Monday evening after tow trucks were called in to remove 24 buses that have blocked part of the road outside the presidential palace in Nicosia since Sunday in a dispute over the way the Nicosia bus service is run.
Bus drivers involved in the protest attempted to stop the drivers of the tow trucks from moving the buses. Two women fainted and had to be taken to Nicosia general hospital. Police said that attempts to tow the buses had been postponed temporarily.
Hundreds of students and other passengers from dozens of communities in the Nicosia district were left stranded on Monday after one of the directors and shareholders in the OSEL bus company prevented his buses from operating in a dispute over mismanagement of funds and safety issues.
On Sunday evening, OSEL shareholder Tasos Michaelides had 30 buses block the Arediou bus terminal in the Nicosia district and parked another 24 outside the presidential palace.
The buses, which blocked one lane of the Demosthenis Severis Avenue all through Monday, caused severe traffic congestion in that part of Nicosia throughout the day.
In a letter to President Nicos Anastasiades, Michaelides denounced irregularities and other problems in the operation of OSEL, of which his bus company is a part. He claimed that the company is diversifying accounts and cheating the state over fuel and bus maintenance costs.
Nicosia’s public bus network was overhauled in 2010 as part of an island-wide revamp of the public transportation system. OSEL was created to run the Nicosia network with individual shareholders making up the network and charging the company to use their buses and run routes. The government pays companies a rate per kilometre and leases the buses.
Michaelides vowed not to move the buses unless President Anastasiades “orders the rest of the OSEL shareholders to pay attention to his reports”, and for the president “to apply his zero tolerance policy on issues concerning ‘vested interests and corruption’”.
As a consequence of the protest, buses that service rural areas in the Nicosia district were not running, forcing many students and other passengers who rely on the buses for transport to miss school or work.
Michaelides expressed his concerns to the state broadcaster CyBC’s morning radio news show and alleged that vested interests were undermining the safety of the buses.
“I have recently reported an incident when a bus’ brakes malfunctioned while on route in a rural area and luckily the driver managed to remain calm and stopped the bus by driving it in a ditch,” Michaelides said.
He added that the company uses inferior parts to allegedly save money when in fact some people take bribes from the company that sells them, instead of going to the original dealer.
He also alleged that OSEL was withholding money which is rightfully his “out of vengeance”.
He called on the transport ministry to step in and ensure “the smooth operation of the service and put a stop to the squandering of public funds” and blamed minister Marios Demetriades for turning a blind eye.
In an announcement, the transport ministry said that reports concerning squandering of public funds, and which might include criminal offences, are already being investigated by the police.
It added that the ministry would take the necessary steps to ensure “legality and to avert the squandering of public funds”.
The head of OSEL Andreas Athanasiades said that the company’s finances are available to everyone to see and denied any allegations passengers’ safety has been endangered.
The community leader of Apliki, Andreas Sykopetritis, said that the protest took the affected areas by surprise.
“The children stayed at home, people did not go to work. We will not tolerate this situation. We are not interested in their problems,” Sykopetritis said.
He said that he and all community leaders of the affected areas were to meet later in the day to discuss their next steps.
Meanwhile, schools affected by the protest, informed parents to watch the news for any changes.
Information on bus delays can be found on the OSEL facebook page and its website: http://www.osel.com.cy