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Last Updated: Monday, 6 November 2006, 12:12 GMT
Turkish Cypriots spurn EU plan
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, northern Cyprus

Varosha, Famagusta, Cyprus
Hotels in the town of Varosha have been abandoned for decades
Famagusta port is a hive of activity as dockers unload used cars and animal feed from ships moored in the shadow of ancient castle walls.

It is a run-down site on the coast of northern Cyprus. But suddenly this is centre-stage in Turkey's latest crisis talks with the EU.

Now that the Republic of Cyprus has joined the EU, Turkey is under pressure to open its own ports and harbours to Greek Cypriot traffic by the end of this year.

Ankara insists it will only do that if the unrecognised Turkish Cypriot republic in the north can trade and travel freely in return.

So opening Famagusta port to direct trade with Europe is part of a compromise deal the EU is struggling to negotiate.

The main advantage would be for Turkish Cypriot exporters, who have been taxed 14% on any trade with Europe since 1994. As a result, most local citrus fruit and potatoes are now exported to Turkey, not Britain.

But at Famagusta port staff do not believe the deal they have heard about is worth it.

The European community promised it would help lift the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community. So why are we still being penalised?
Mahmut Nihat, Turkish Cypriot civil aviation chief
"We would save something like $10m or $15m [a year]," (5-8m), shipping agent Huseyin Kayalp calculates.

"That's not much. In order to improve our economy we need a better solution to bring more tourists here."

It is Ercan airport - not Famagusta - that the authorities in northern Cyprus really want opened.

According to official figures, annual revenue from agricultural exports adds up to around $160m (85m); tourism brings in 2.5 times as much money, even now.

But that is where the isolation of this self-proclaimed state, recognised only by the Turkish government in Ankara, hits hardest.

The Green Line in Cyprus
It has become easier for people to cross the Green Line

The number of flights landing at Ercan is increasing by a steady 20% each year. But the only airlines permitted to fly here are local or Turkish, and all international flights have to touch down in Turkey.

Allowing direct flights to Ercan would slash travel costs and time and inevitably attract more tourists.

The Greek Cypriot authorities reject the suggestion outright, arguing that opening an international airport in the north would be tantamount to official recognition of what they call occupied land.

In the north though many people believe it is the only fair reward for their "Yes" vote in a referendum on uniting Cyprus two years ago. They are still smarting that the Greek Cypriots voted "No" and joined the EU regardless.

"Put simply, direct flights will provide communication between this community and the rest of the world," says Mahmut Nihat, director of civil aviation for northern Cyprus.

"After the referendum, the European community promised it would help lift the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community. So why are we still being penalised?"

Abandoned resort

On the coast east of Ercan, there is another stark symbol of the Cypriot stalemate: a three-decade-old deadlock that only seems further from solution since Cyprus joined the EU as a divided island.

Map of Cyprus
Varosha was once a prime holiday resort run mainly by Greek Cypriots. Today its high-rise hotels are fenced-off and crumbling. Turkish troops have taken the place of tourists.

So, now that Turkey is demanding concessions for northern Cyprus before it opens its ports, the Greek Cypriots are insisting they want Varosha returned to them.

Metin Sahinoglu runs a hotel on the northern edge of the military zone.

Reopening Varosha would certainly be good for his business, but he believes the resort is a vital trump card northern Cyprus should keep until there are new negotiations for a political settlement.

"Just giving away Varosha and taking Famagusta port will generate nothing at all. Varosha should be part of a full settlement," the hotelier insists from his terrace overlooking the golden sands of Varosha.

Famagusta port, Cyprus
Opening Famagusta port would help Turkish Cypriot exports

"Why do we still have to suffer under political and economic sanctions? Why only Famagusta, why not Ercan? I don't think it's much of a gain for us."

Amid fraught efforts to rescue Turkey's EU accession bid, the Turkish Cypriot leader told the BBC he was confident Ankara would not betray its ally.

Mehmet Ali Talat is in defiant mood - aware of popular frustration that the vast majority here voted to reunite the island, and feel they got nothing.

"We will try to do our best to reach a compromise, but we can't sacrifice the rights of Turkish Cypriots," Mr Talat explains from his office in northern Nicosia.

He is not about to hand over Varosha.

"We have minimum powers in our hands. If we lose them, who will compel the Greek Cypriots to share power with us? So we have to keep very jealously our assets."

'Stuck in their ways'

Up on the coast in Kyrenia (Girne) the pretty harbour is still buzzing with tourists even on a damp November morning. Most visitors are British and many are now buying villas here, sparking a building boom, bringing more money to the north.

An easing of restrictions along the Green Line that divides Cyprus has also brought an influx of funds: from workers taking better-paid jobs in the south, and tourists crossing to the north.

"Since the border opened tourism has definitely improved here. More people are coming across for day trips and realising we're not under army control, that there are actually restaurants and supermarkets!" explains one Kyrenia tour operator.

"But still we've got to get direct flights coming in here. I'm not hopeful for that in my own or my children's lifetime though. I think there are too many memories on both sides and people are just too stuck in their ways."

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