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Secrecy surrounds Turkish military taking over of airport in north

feature esra main the gecitkalelefkoniko airport
Gecitkale (Lefkoniko) airport

Opposition party says not given adequate information before a vote on airport’s contested future

The protocol between the north Cyprus and Turkey regarding the handing over of Lefkoniko airport to the Turkish army is being kept secret on the grounds that it constitutes classified military information. The protocol, backed unexpectedly also by the main opposition Republican Turkish Party CTP was unanimously approved by the Turkish Cypriot assembly in January.

The protocol to “allocate the Gecitkale (Lefkoniko) airport and its right of use to the Commandership of the Turkish Cypriot Peace Forces” is not published on any official website in the north or Turkey and attempts by the Cyprus Mail to obtain or see it were rejected as it is “classified and not public.” The Turkish Cypriot Peace Forces are under the direct control of the Turkish Armed Forces.

Before the unanimous vote at the assembly, which was broadcast live, the protocol’s aim was read out, which is “to improve the friendly and brotherly relations between the two countries and the military training and cooperation between the Armed Forces of the two countries.” The content of the protocol was withheld with the justification that it “includes many technical details.”

CTP has previously repeatedly objected to the use of Lefkoniko by the Turkish military as a landing airport and deployment hub for unmanned aircraft.

In a baffling address ahead of the vote, CTP head Tufan Erhurman said his party “will support the protocol” because Lefkoniko “will not become a military base” or “host warplanes.”

Minutes after the unanimous vote however, a triumphant Turkish media announced Lefkoniko as “Turkey’s first military base in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Turkish state television TRT hailed the vote as a “historic step” that formalised “Gecitkale as an official base for Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV).”

The same morning, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar appeared live on a private Turkish television channel announcing, “Turkey now has a UAV and UCAV base in the TRNC.”

Amid the celebratory reports in the Turkish media and lack of transparency on the contents of the protocol, many found Erhurman’s justification far from convincing.

“Erhurman’s explanation… is unfortunate and serves nothing other than ridiculing our intelligence,” Fikri Marasali from the Turkish Cypriot Sol Hareket (Left Movement) said.

Journalist Ulas Baris also reacted on social media: “Gecitkale is already a military base. Erhurman either thinks we are stupid or he is joking… There is no other explanation.”

In fact, ten days prior to the unanimous vote in the assembly, CTP deputies Ongun Talat and Urun Solyali, who were members of the legal, political and foreign affairs sub-committee of the assembly, had voted against the protocol. They were outnumbered by the positive votes from the representatives of the ruling coalition and the protocol was referred to the assembly.

In an attempt to explain the contradiction, during his address Erhurman said Talat and Solyali rejected the protocol at sub-committee level because “they were not given adequate information” regarding its substance.

“We were put in a position where we had to contact the competent authorities ourselves,” Erhurman said. He added that Lefkoniko would be turned into an alternative airport without further land appropriations to be used in case Ercan/Tymbou is in any way disabled; it would not be a military base or a sovereign military base; that it would be used for air sports; and that civil aviation would remain in control.

Admitting that he had not seen the text of the protocol, Erhurman said: “The information we were able to obtain regarding the protocol is… within the parameters I have just mentioned… We reckon that we have obtained adequate information regarding the issue. Therefore, it is important to note that our positive vote is with these reservations and conditions. If there is any development outside these parameters, this would not be something we approve.”

The Cyprus Mail understands that the information was obtained by Erhurman in a private meeting with a high-ranking Turkish military official. It also anonymously confirmed that the deputies did not see the text of the protocol before the unanimous vote.

Turkish Cypriot Bagimsizlik Yolu (Path for Independence) questioned the basis of the statement that Lefkoniko airport will not become a military base.

“Who assured Mr Erhurman that the Gecitkale airport would not be used as a base for UAVs and UCAVs and that warplanes will not be deployed there,” it asked in a written statement. “Was this assurance verbal or written and documented? Does Mr Erhurman, as a legal expert, know that assurances are not binding unless they are written?

At least three CTP deputies walked out of the assembly just before voting began in an apparent protest against the party’s position.

In fact, plans to turn Lefkoniko into a permanent military base for Turkish UAVs and UCAVs were first voiced in 2021 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We have to be strong in case of any attacks in the region,” he had said. “And to be strong, we have to be present in the sky, on the land and in the seas.”

In 2023, the Turkish Cypriot ruling coalition gave authority to the ‘ministry’ responsible for transportation to prepare and sign the now-secret protocol with Ankara giving the right of use of Lefkoniko to the Turkish army. Erhan Arikli, who was then and still is responsible for the north’s transport dossier had hailed the decision on Turkish state television TRT: “Gecitkale airport will become a military base. And I will put the most honourable signature on it.”

Lefkoniko airport was first used for military purposes as a landing and stationing airport by Turkish UCAVs in 2019. The UCAVs were sent in response to oil and gas exploration activities by international energy companies licenced by the Cyprus government.

According to Turkish media reports, Turkey has been modernising the Lefkoniko airport since 2019, upgrading its infrastructure, building repair and maintenance stations, arsenals and storage for weapons systems. Military experts are quoted as saying that Lefkoniko airport was built in line with Nato standards and with a refurbishment it can in a short time become a base where F-16s can be deployed.

An intelligence report obtained by the Associated Press in 2021 indicated that Lefkoniko was receiving the upgrade for a planned deployment of additional drones, surveillance aircraft, training planes and advanced fighter jets.

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