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Crossing opens, closes on divided Cyprus

Greek and Turkish Cypriot authorities reopened the divided capital's Ledra Street on Thursday — but were forced to close it hours later.
Image: Turkish people gather on Ledra street in Nicosia, Cyprus
Turkish people gather on Ledra Street during opening ceremony of the Lokmaci crossing point in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Thursday. The crossing point has symbolized the decades-old division of the Mediterranean island.Birol Bebek / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Greek and Turkish Cypriot authorities reopened the divided capital's Ledra Street on Thursday — but were forced to close it hours later following a dispute over how the street should be policed.

Authorities closed the southern entrance to the crossing on Ledra Street, a central Nicosia shopping district that has symbolized the partition of the island.

Stefanos Stefanou, a spokesman for the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government, confirmed the decision to close Ledra Street, saying Turkish Cypriot police illegally patrolled part of the street by entering the U.N.-controlled buffer zone.

"We have been very clear that violations cannot be tolerated," Stefanou told The Associated Press.

Thursday's opening was meant to serve as a catalyst for peace negotiations between Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots pulled down barricades that have separated them for almost half a century.

In a ceremony attended by United Nations envoys, the 230-foot stretch of Ledra Street in the main commercial district of Nicosia was opened to pedestrians.

Opening the road is a highly symbolic gesture ahead of talks to end the Mediterranean island's division, an obstacle to Turkey's hoped-for membership of the European Union and a source of tension between NATO partners Athens and Ankara.

"We all know opening Ledra Street does not mean the Cyprus problem is resolved. There is much more hard work to be done," said Elizabeth Spehar, the chief of mission for the United Nations in Cyprus. "But the opening gives us a glimpse of what is possible."

Barbed wire
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup. The rupture on Ledra Street precedes that by some 15 years, when barricades were erected by Turkish Cypriots in 1958. A more permanent roadblock was erected after ethnic strife in 1963 — when British peacekeepers laid barbed wire across the street between Nicosia's Greek and Turkish Cypriot sectors.

Crews spent days sweeping away debris, repaving and reinforcing abandoned buildings along the stretch of street that runs through a U.N.-controlled buffer zone — transforming the weed-strewn strip.

Boundary restrictions in divided Cyprus were relaxed by the Turkish Cypriots in 2003, and five crossing points have opened since then. Ledra Street becomes the sixth, but its symbolism injects momentum in a renewed reunification drive. It is also the only point where the two sides are in such close proximity.

"We are living a historic day today. We are witnessing one of the obstacles to a solution come down," said Osdil Nami, aide to Talat. He added that "almost half a century of division is symbolized" in Ledra Street.

"It also symbolizes for me that when Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots can overcome their fears ... they can overcome long-standing disputes and arguments," he said during the ceremony. "This is a historic event. A small step, but a very important step."

Talat and Christofias has already agreed to end a four-year stalemate in peace talks — setting up working committees for full-fledged negotiations.

'Road to a solution'
"By opening this street, we hope that the road to a solution to the Cyprus problem will also open," George Iacovou, an aide to Christofias told reporters.

Christofias' election last month on rising discontent with his predecessor's hardline policies towards Turkish Cypriots had raised hopes for a revival of talks stalled since Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint in a 2004 referendum.

The pedestrian street cuts north to south through the heart of medieval Nicosia's commercial district, and across the U.N.-patrolled "green line" that splits the city of about 250,000 residents east to west.

Once known as "murder mile" for the frequency with which Greek Cypriot guerillas targeted British colonial troops before independence in 1960, Ledra is now an upmarket shopping street on the Greek Cypriot side. Its Turkish Cypriot part fans out into a maze of alleyways.

'I couldn't sleep'
Cypriots who had gathered at both ends of the street for the ceremony began crossing as soon as Ledra was reopened.

"I couldn't sleep all night. I will walk to St Loukas church (on the Turkish Cypriot side) and light a candle," said Loukia Skordi Salidou, 65. "My generation is dying, thank God I'm alive to see this."

"These are feelings of joy and hope for our common home," said Andreas Gregoriou, a 45-year-old Greek Cypriot refugee from Famagusta in the Turkish Cypriot north. "This is a historic day."

"We still have a long way to go," said Nicosia Mayor Eleni Mavrou. "This is the first step. We hope many more will follow."

But some were less jubilant.

"This is just another crossing. Another crossing has opened, nothing more," said Costas Andreou, 70, a refugee from Kyphrea in the north. "Let's hope for better days soon, before we die."