Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Can Cyprus overcome its bloody history?

By Chris Summers
BBC News

More British soldiers were killed during the "Cyprus emergency" in the 1950s than have died in Iraq or Afghanistan. So why has it been forgotten and what hope is there of reuniting the island?

British High Commissioner Peter Millett laying a wreath at new memorial in Kyrenia, Cyprus
The British High Commissioner laid a wreath on behalf of the Queen

On Remembrance Sunday, about 500 relatives and veterans watched as a new memorial was unveiled in Kyrenia, in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, to recognise the 371 British servicemen who lost their lives on the island between 1956 and 1959.

The unveiling, and the laying of a wreath by the British High Commissioner, Peter Millett, sparked a diplomatic row, with President Demetris Christofias raising the matter when he met UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown a few days later.

One of the names on the memorial is Corporal Mervyn Whurr, 22, killed by a bomb on Kyrenia's Six Mile Beach in September 1956.

His sister, Barbara Hocking, from Millbrook in Cornwall, said: "My mum had a telegram saying he'd been injured, then she got another one saying he had an arm and a leg amputated. A few days later another telegram came saying he'd died."

Matt Neely
He loved his football, he was full of fun, playing jokes and was very popular with his mates.
Margaret Moncur

Unlike those of troops killed in Afghanistan, his body, like those of most of the Cyprus casualties, was not flown home and lies in a cemetery at Wayne's Keep on the island.

Mrs Hocking was at the unveiling of the memorial, where she was joined by Margaret Moncur, whose brother 19-year-old Matt Neely, from Glasgow, was killed in 1956 by a bomb while doing his National Service.

Mrs Moncur said: "He loved his football, he was full of fun, playing jokes and was very popular with his mates.

"For some reason Cyprus has become a forgotten war."

The Cyprus High Commissioner to London, Alexandros Zenon, said the failure to consult the Cyprus government about the memorial was perceived as an "insult".

Cyprus (1955-1959) - 371
Afghanistan (2002 - 2009) - 235
Iraq (2003-2009) - 179

He said: "In principle we are not against a country honouring its soldiers who fell in service.

"The problem is that the memorial was built and unveiled in the occupied part of Cyprus. It could have been erected in the British sovereign base area.

"We also feel it's politically premature. I understand they want to honour them, but for Greek Cypriots the anti-colonial struggle is still a very sensitive issue."

In the late 1950s the British Empire was trying to cling on to the island, which remained a strategic location, especially around the time of the Suez crisis.

Greek Cypriot fighters belonging to an organisation called Eoka planted bombs and attacked British servicemen on and off duty.

Several civilians were also killed, including Catherine Cutliffe and her daughter Margaret who were shot while buying a wedding dress in Famagusta, although Eoka denied responsibility for that attack.

PM Papandreou in Cyprus
Greece's PM visits the graves of those killed fighting the British

Eventually in 1960 Cyprus was granted independence, but tensions between the Greek Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriot minority grew during the next decade.

In July 1974 a Greek nationalist group, Eoka-B, led by Nikos Sampson, carried out a coup backed by the military junta in power in Athens.

Sampson promised to unite Cyprus with Greece in so-called "enosis".

Turkey sent its army to the northern part of the island, ostensibly to protect Turkish Cypriots.

The idea of enosis evaporated and the moderate Archbishop Makarios returned to power.

But the Turkish Army has remained ever since and the island is still separated, with a UN buffer zone running right through the heart of Nicosia, the world's last remaining divided city.

President Demetris Christofias and President Mehmet Ali Talat at talks in Nicosia
Mr Christofias (left) and Mr Talat met last week for the latest round of talks.

In 2004 the United Nations came up with the Annan Plan - named after the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan - which suggested a bi-zonal federated state.

But, although it was accepted by the Turkish Cypriots in a referendum, another poll in the south rejected it.

Cyprus was then admitted into the EU, which many Turkish Cypriots opposed believing it removed an incentive for the Greek Cypriot side to reach a solution.

But fresh momentum was injected with the election of Mr Christofias and Mehmet Ali Talat, president of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Both are leftists elected on a platform of reconciliation.

Negotiations are ongoing, but one of the major stumbling blocks is the question of how to deal with Greek Cypriots who claim land and property in the north.

Some of this has been sold to some of the 6,000 British expats in northern Cyprus.

In what could prove to be a test case, a court in Cyprus ruled against a couple, David and Linda Orams, who bought land originally belonging to a Greek Cypriot, Meletis Apostolides.

There are fears that if no deal is reached before elections in the TRNC in April what Mr Brown referred to as a "unique opportunity" could be lost.

Mr Zenon said: "The likely opponent of Mr Talat is a hardliner and if he is elected, things will not be made easier. But we will not create artificial deadlines which, as with the Annan Plan, have proved disastrous."

Mr Talat himself, in an interview with the BBC, admitted: "If somebody who is not in favour of a bi-zonal solution is elected then the negotiations will not continue easily."

He said of the negotiations: "The positions of the two sides are not very close, but we are making progress."

Mr Brown recently renewed an offer to hand back just under half of the UK's sovereign base areas on the island - around Akrotiri and Dhekelia - if a deal could be reached between the two sides.

Mervyn Whurr
Cpl Mervyn Whurr was one of 371 servicemen killed in Cyprus

Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon in north London, feels the timing of the Kyrenia memorial was unfortunate.

He represents more than 3,000 Greek Cypriot constituents and recently led a debate in Parliament about the island.

Mr Dismore said: "Of course, there should be a memorial, but this is neither the time or place, at such a sensitive time in the talks.

"It just serves to remind Greek Cypriots of the UK's less than glorious role as the colonial power, when we are trying to be positive in our support for the talks."

But Mr Talat said the memorial was a "humanitarian" issue and should not have become "politicised".

Mrs Hocking said it was sad the memorial had led to a row and she said of her brother's death: "Was it worth it? The two governments are still not talking. Was it worth all those lives being wasted? It's just like Afghanistan."

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