Cyprus police use tear gas at protest against crossing closure

Charlie Charalambous
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Cypriot protesters clash with police in the UN buffer dividing the capital Nicosia

Cypriot protesters clash with police in the UN buffer dividing the capital Nicosia (AFP Photo/Birol BEBEK)

Nicosia (AFP) - Cyprus police sprayed tear gas on Saturday as several hundred people protested against the closure of crossings on the divided island's ceasefire line over coronavirus fears.

Four officers were injured in the capital Nicosia during scuffles with demonstrators in which police made "limited use" of personal tear gas spray to control the crowd, a police spokesperson said.

Police said they made no arrests as an estimated 200 Greek Cypriots and 150 Turkish Cypriots gathered either side of the Ledra Street crossing in central Nicosia to demand the checkpoints be re-opened.

Protesters from the northern Turkish Cypriot side tried to break through a cordon blocking the crossing point, police said.

The Mediterranean island is divided between the Republic of Cyprus -- a European Union member state -- and the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara.

Cypriot authorities closed four of the eight checkpoints on the line dividing the island last Saturday for an initial seven-day period "for more effective control over the entry points".

Activist group Unite Cyprus Now organised the protest, with demonstrators chanting "Peace in Cyprus cannot be stopped" and "Contain the virus of partition".

Turkish Cypriot European Parliament member Niyazi Kizilyurek told reporters that closing the crossings was an "unnecessary disruption and politically unacceptable".

The government said it will re-evaluate the closures on Monday.

- 'Unilateral' and 'unnecessary' -

Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said earlier this week the decision to close the crossings was not political but due to a shortage of medical personnel to monitor the crossings.

The United Nations said on Thursday it was concerned by the ongoing disruption caused to people on both sides.

"While the UN supports all effective measures to address any potential public health emergency, it is imperative for the two sides to coordinate closely in order to provide a comprehensive response," it said.

Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci criticised the closures, calling the move "unilateral" and "unnecessary".

"This one-sided decision was not a correct decision, it should be revised," he told Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in a telephone call.

Cyprus has not reported any cases of coronavirus, which has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide, mostly in China, where the epidemic started in late December.

Akinci urged Anastasiades to "correct" what he called a political and unscientific decision.

Anastasiades denied that the closures were politically motivated, saying: "We have taken a decision which is based on scientific data."

It is the first time the crossings have closed since they were first opened in 2003.

UN-brokered reunification talks between Anastasiades and Akinci have been suspended since 2017.