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Pyla: Assault on UN soldiers ‘violation of international law’ (Update 6, video)

A UN vehicle is pushed out of the way by a Turkish Cypriot vehicle in Pyla
UN vehicle pushed out of the way by a Turkish Cypriot vehicle in Pyla in August

Three treated for minor injuries and multiple vehicles ‘undriveable’

A UN peacekeeper was punched in the face while attempting to block the “unauthorised” construction of a road through the buffer zone between the villages of Pyla and Arsos by Turkish Cypriot authorities, the Cyprus Mail has learnt.

Three peacekeepers were treated for minor injuries following the incident. The nationality of the peacekeepers is not yet known, but the Pyla area falls in the UN’s “Sector 4”, which is the responsibility of the Slovak contingent.

In response, the Cyprus representatives of three of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, the British high commission, the French embassy, and the US embassy made a joint statement condemning the incident.

The representations expressed “serious concern at the launch of unauthorised construction” of the road, before addressing the assaults themselves.

“We condemn the assaults against UN peacekeepers and damage to UN vehicles by personnel of the Turkish Cypriot side this morning. Threats to the safety of UN peacekeepers and damage to UN property constitute a serious crime under international law”, the statement said.

The representations added that “these actions are completely unacceptable and undermine the ability of the UN to fulfil its mandate”.

They urged the Turkish Cypriot authorities to “halt construction immediately” and added that “the sides should respect Unficyp’s mandated authority in and delineation of the buffer zone, refrain from unilateral actions in contravention thereof, and remove all unauthorised constructions”.

“We call upon the Turkish Cypriot authorities to refrain from any further escalatory actions that risk undermining prospects for a return to settlement talks, and to immediately cease any form of violence against the UN peacekeepers deployed to the area”, they said.

They added that “unilateral or escalatory actions, including actions that could alter the status quo along the ceasefire lines or encroachment into the buffer zone must cease to allow steps to be taken to rebuild trust and work toward the resumption of negotiations”.

They reiterated their “full support” for Unficyp and for the UN’s special representative in Cyprus Colin Stewart “in their engagement with parties to avoid tensions that could undermine a peaceful settlement”.

In total, 12 UN peacekeepers were “violently” pushed back from their positions in the buffer zone, apparently by Turkish Cypriot military and police in plain clothes.

In addition, UN vehicles which were blocking access to the road were dragged out of the way by tractors, while other vehicles were rammed off the road. Three UN vehicles are now in an undriveable state on the side of the road, having suffered damage to their chassis.

The Cyprus Mail understands that those engaging from the Turkish Cypriot side were military and police personnel dressed in plain clothes, including individuals who have engaged in similar conflicts with UN personnel in the past.

It is estimated that between 12 and 24 Turkish Cypriot personnel engaged with the UN, outnumbering the peacekeepers who were stationed in the area.

Despite the widespread condemnation, construction of the road recommenced on Friday afternoon, according to Turkish Cypriot news outlet Yeni Duzen and eyewitness reports.

Ersin Tatar said in a television interview on Friday afternoon that the land on which the road is set to be built belongs to the Turkish Cypriot side and attacked the UN for attempting to block the path of the construction workers.

“If you come onto our land now and try to stop this path, you are interfering with the work in progress. By what authority and in what capacity do you hinder this work on my land?”, he asked.

He added “we explained this in detail to the UN long ago through our foreign minister. Our view was that the job [of reaching an agreement for the project] was done in June and everything was ready in June, but the special representative who was here visited the US and then went on holiday to Canada”.

“They said when Colin Stewart comes back, let this work begin. Colin Stewart is back now and on the promise we gave, the work has been delayed until now. This was a play for time. This is a move made for the work not to be done, so we showed our determination and started the works”, he said.

In addition, the Turkish Cypriot ‘foreign ministry’ released a statement on Friday afternoon.

They said “despite the fact the road is being built for humanitarian purposes, UN soldiers … physically intervened in the territory of the TRNC and attempted to prevent the road’s construction. The UN’s attitude during this incident was unacceptable”.

They also claimed statements from Unficyp and other international actors “distort the situation, and claim that UN soldiers and vehicles were attacked. These claims are unfounded”.

“We have only police in the field and the duty of our police in the TRNC territory is to ensure the safety of the civilian team which is carrying out the road works. The tension in the region was caused by the attitude of the UN soldiers and personnel, and the physical intervention and obstruction of our team”, they said.

The north’s ‘foreign minister’ Tahsin Ertugruloglu also came out with a statement, describing the incident as “a UN move to increase blood pressure” and “a scenario being played out to satisfy the Greek Cypriot side”.

He added that “the UN is not a friendly organisation to the Turkish Cypriots” and said the UN Security Council members which made a joint statement on the matter earlier on Friday are “doing their best to dissuade and deter us. Their only goal is to blame us”.

“The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are more Greek Cypriot-loving than the Greek Cypriots”, he said.

He claimed the UN’s special representative in Cyprus Colin Stewart had asked for time back in June when the Turkish Cypriot side wanted to start the project, and said that “we gave him his time, too”.

He said “during these months, they should have prepared the acceptable agreement they are talking about now”, but that instead, he had been “playing for time” and “killing the project”.

To this end, Ertugruloglu said “the UN is not a friendly organisation to the Turkish Cypriots”, and said the UN Security Council members which made a joint statement on the matter earlier on Friday are “doing their best to dissuade and deter us. Their only goal is to blame us”.

He added that “the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are more Greek Cypriot-loving than the Greek Cypriots”.

“They are trying to realise scenarios on this island that will put us under the yoke of the Greek Cypriots. So long as we stand up against this, they will continue to play the game of making us look bad and making the Greek Cypriots look good”, he said.

He concluded by saying “I hope the UN will not try to hinder us as it did today, because we will not allow it, we will not let it happen. We will build this road and that’s an end of it!”

Elsewhere, President Nikos Christodoulides and Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a telephone call regarding the incident, attended by foreign minister Constantinos Kombos and other high-level dignitaries.

The government said Christodoulides is being “constantly informed of all developments and is in constant contact with all parties involved”.

The government had earlier released a statement condemning the “organised incidents” which took place in the morning, describing them as an “unacceptable attack against British and Slovak members of the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus (Unficyp)”.

“Threats to the safety of UN peacekeepers are reprehensible and constitute a serious crime under international law”, the government said.buffer zone, fracas, Unficyp, Pyla road, incident

They added that they are “carrying out all diplomatic actions and are in constant contact with the UN, permanent members of the Security Council, the EU, the Greek government, and with the leadership of Unficyp”.

The Greek foreign ministry also made a statement, “unequivocally condemning” the incident.

They added, “the attempt to create faits accomplis within the dead zone is a flagrant violation of the status quo, while the attack on members of the UN peacekeeping force constitutes an act of contempt for international law”.

“The illegal operations must stop immediately, and it is necessary to avoid any kind of activity that will cause further escalation”, they said.

President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also spoke out on the issue in a social media post on Friday afternoon. He said “I strongly condemn the assault on UN peacekeepers by Turkish Cypriot personnel in Pyla today. Ensuring peacekeepers’ safety and deescalating the situation must remain a priority”.

He added that he is in contact with President Nikos Christodoulides, “following the situation closely, and calling for peace in the area”.

Josep Borrell, the European Commission’s vice president and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also issued a statement via social media on Friday afternoon.

He said “the EU condemns the assault on Unficyp by personnel from the Turkish Cypriot side. We call on the Turkish Cypriot side to respect the mission’s mandated authority in the UN buffer zone and resumption of work on an agreeable way forward in the Pyla area”.

He also confirmed that he had spoken with foreign minister Constantinos Kombos regarding the issue.

European Parliament president Roberta Metsola also said she was “deeply concerned” about the incident in a social media post of her own.

She added that “the European Parliament condemns these attacks and reiterates its call for the resumption of reunification talks”.

“Trust and not violence must be the way to the future”, she said.

The incident also condemned the embassy of China in Cyprus as well as the Norwegian ambassador.

“The integrity and inviolability of the buffer zone must be respected. Unauthorized construction should be halted. Unauthorized military or civilian activities within and along the ceasefire lines should be prevented,” the Chinese embassy said.

Among others, the embassy expressed hope that “Greek and Turkish Cypriots will firmly hold the golden key of dialogue and consultation, increase mutual trust with dialogue.”

For her part, Norwegian ambassador Lajla Brandt Jakhelln said “the buffer zone is controlled by the UN and this must be respected. Violence is not the way forward for Cyprus.”

According to information obtained by the Cyprus News Agency (CNA), UN Special representative Colin Stewart is “in communication with both sides of the island as well as with the governments of countries in the UN Security Council in order to avoid further tensions and settle this issue through dialogue”.

They added that “a diplomatic issue is underway to resolve the issue”.

In addition, they said Unficyp “expresses its commitment to continue to prevent the construction of the road”.

The north’s ‘foreign minister’ spoke to local television on the issue on Friday afternoon, accusing the UN of “playing for time” on the issue.

He said there was “no ulterior motive” to the construction project and said the UN Security Council is “not a Turkish Cypriot-friendly organisation”.

He then promised the project will be completed.

In an earlier statement, Unficyp condemned assaults against UN peacekeepers and damage to UN vehicles by personnel from the Turkish Cypriot side early on Friday.

“Threats to the safety of UN peacekeepers and damage to UN property are unacceptable and constitute a serious crime under international law which will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” an announcement said.

Unficyp called on the Turkish Cypriot side to “respect the mission’s mandated authority inside the UN buffer zone, refrain from any actions that could escalate tensions further and to withdraw all personnel and machinery from the UN buffer zone immediately”.

The mission said it was monitoring the situation closely and remains committed to ensuring calm and stability are maintained in the area.

Earlier on Friday morning, Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, made a telephone call to her Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan regarding the road. The call was made at Colonna’s request.

Fidan said he told Colonna the road was being constructed for “purely humanitarian reasons”, to allow Turkish Cypriots living in Pyla to have access to the north “without being dependent on the British sovereign base area”.

The row began when the north’s ‘foreign ministry’ had announced on Thursday its intention to carry out “improvements” to the road and open it to the public. Currently, the only way to drive between the two villages is to drive through the British base in Dhekelia and the village of Pergamos.

Following this announcement, Unficyp had said it was “concerned” by the plans and labelled them as “unauthorised”. They also called on the Turkish Cypriot authorities to “continue [negotiation] efforts before construction work commences”.

In his own statement, government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis condemned the plans, saying they are “attempting to create new settlements within the dead zone by planning an illegal entry into the area”.

The Cyprus Mail contacted the Turkish foreign ministry and the Turkish Cypriot authorities for comment.

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