Thousands jam roads after Cyprus travel ban lifted

Saturday, April 26, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Roads linking the two sides of war-divided Cyprus were jammed for miles on Friday with thousands of people anxious to visit the other side for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Thousands of travelers, some shouting for joy, have crossed the checkpoint dividing the capital, Nicosia, since a travel ban was lifted this week. On the third day since Turkish authorities lifted the ban, Greek Cypriots lined up for miles, some spending the night in their cars, to ensure passage to the Turkish-occupied north of the island.

Greek Cypriots took advantage of the Orthodox Easter Good Friday holiday to make the trip. Police said the crowd waiting to cross -- estimated at more than 10,000 people -- was the largest it has been since the ban was lifted. More were expected throughout the rest of the four-day Easter holiday.

Hundreds of Turkish Cypriots also lined up to pass through the checkpoint.

The Cyprus government has welcomed the easing, but played down its significance, calling it an attempt by the unrecognized Turkish breakaway state to gain international sympathy following intense criticism for rejecting a U.N. reunification plan last month.

Rauf Denktash, leader of the breakaway state, has called his decision to lift the travel ban "an experiment."

"Let us digest it and see where we go from here," he said.

Newspapers and TV stations on both sides have given extensive coverage to the poignant one-day visits of people to their former homes -- and the warm welcomes they received -- as evidence of the desire of people on both sides for reconciliation.

The English-language Cyprus Weekly called it "a clear indication that the people as a whole are eagerly waiting for the day of reunification, return to normality and living together as free and equal citizens of the wider European Union family."

Cyprus has been split into a Greek Cypriot controlled south and the occupied north since Turkey invaded in 1974 after an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is only recognized by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops there.

Nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled or were driven from their homes. The Turkish side has allowed only a few to cross for brief visits.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been pushing the sides toward a unifying peace deal, and conditions of the island's future membership in the European Union hinge on its reconciliation.

Under an agreement signed last week, the island will join the European Union on May 1, 2004, but EU laws and benefits will not apply to the occupied north pending reunification.

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