58ºF

Cyprus police pepper spray protesters at shut crossing point

NICOSIA – Cyprus riot police used pepper spray on Saturday to thwart Turkish Cypriot protesters trying to shove their way through a barricaded crossing point in the heart of the ethnically divided island nation's capital.

Several dozen protesters tried to push their way through a cordon of riot police on the Greek Cypriot side of the east Mediterranean island nation, but were held back. Police said protesters hurled rocks during the brief demonstration, while four Greek Cypriot officers were injured.

Last week, the Cypriot government closed four of nine crossing points along a 120 mile, United Nations controlled buffer zone, justifying the move on public health grounds. It said it would better enable medical staff to screen for potential coronavirus carriers crossing from the breakaway, Turkish Cypriot north, to the internationally recognized, Greek Cypriot south.

Additional health workers have have been posted to the other openings for more thorough checks. Cyprus has so far no confirmed coronavirus cases.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades pointed to the fact that 3,000 Iranians live and study in the north. Iran has been hard hit by the new virus.

“This division is not acceptable, this is not a coronavirus issue," said Turkish Cypriot activist Murat Kanatli.

Greek Cypriot protesters on the opposite side of the barrier voiced their support for the Turkish Cypriots, with some directing chants of “shame” toward the police. This follows another protest a week ago that saw the arrest of a demonstrator who allegedly slapped a Greek Cypriot soldier.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence. Although Cyprus is a European Union member, only the south enjoys full membership benefits.

Turkish Cypriot officials have denounced the closures and have complained to the U.N. and the European Union. The U.N. peacekeeping mission on Cyprus expressed concern over the “disruptive” closures, earning a rebuke from the Cypriot president not to meddle in government affairs.