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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Palestinians land on friendly ground
Palestinians in the Flamingo Hotel
Palestinians receive sympathetic coverage in Cyprus
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By Russell Working
In Larnaca

In Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, they were surrounded by Israeli troops and holed up in a compound with overflowing toilets and rotting corpses in the basement.

Now, 13 Palestinian militants find themselves in Larnaca's three-star Flamingo Hotel, across from a beach where Scandinavian tourists sunbathe topless and down the street from the popular Salt Lake City fish tavern.

We might feel a little closer to the Palestinian people because we had a number of Cypriot refugees expelled from their own homes by the Turkish army

Dr Marios Matsakis, Cyprus MP
The men have also found themselves on friendly ground.

Many Greek Cypriots compare the Palestinian struggle with their own troubles as a small nation illegally dominated by a powerful neighbour.

Turkey occupies 35% of the island, where most of the ethnic Turkish population now lives, and has populated its portion with settlers from Anatolia.

But there are, of course, differences.

Greek Cypriots have not muddied their cause by using suicide bombers and Turkey makes no pretence that its occupation has strategic value - rather, it says its soldiers are there to protect the island's ethnic Turks.

Parliamentary support

Nevertheless, the sympathy many Cypriots feel for Palestinians is real.

The goodwill extends to parliament, which passed a resolution last month backing the Palestinian cause and condemning "genocide conducted by the Sharon government".

The resolution made no condemnation of the Passover suicide attacks that prompted the incursions into the West Bank.

Dr Marios Matsakis, a Cypriot member of parliament who tried unsuccessfully to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last month, said it was natural that Cypriots were drawn to Palestinians.

Greek Cypriot pilgrims cross the border to visit a church in the Turkish area
The Cypriot people live on a divided island
"We might feel a little closer to the Palestinian people because we had a number of Cypriot refugees expelled from their own homes by the Turkish army, and they are powerless to do anything," he said.

The Palestinian cause has received sympathetic media coverage here, even during a string of suicide bomb attacks against Israelis.

A recent editorial in The Cyprus Weekly stated that this island "is itself the victim of a situation where UN Security Council resolutions are rejected by a foreign occupying power".

The Israeli Government insists that the 13 militants "had blood on their hands" but Cypriots have expressed little fear of them.

Hotel workers say other guests do not mind their presence, even though the men arrived wearing Arab kaffiyeh - scarves - tied around their heads and, in one case, a Palestinian flag as a cape.

Hotel manager Antonis Josephides says the militants have no contact with other guests.

Devout Muslims

"They are all staying on the fourth floor and there is nobody else on that floor," he said. "They take their meals alone on the mezzanine."

The gunmen are apparently devout Muslims.

They asked not to be served pork and have not asked the management to stock the mini-bars in their rooms.

Their first meal was fish and chips with water, juice and coffee. But such comparative luxury was not an occasion for rejoicing.

Beach near the Flamingo Hotel
The men have been asked not to leave the hotel
"It is hard for them that they have to leave their country," said Samir Abu Ghazaleh, the Palestinian charge d'affaires in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia.

"But we believe that in a short time they will be back."

Even if they were so inclined, the gunmen would not be hitting the nightclubs and strip bars of Larnaca.

The Cypriot Government says the men are not prisoners but it has asked them to stay indoors for security reasons. Soldiers armed with automatic rifles are guarding the hotel.

Cypriot profile raised

With the arrival of the Palestinians, Cypriot officials have been excitedly noting that they can play a role in Europe's Middle Eastern diplomacy.

The Greek portion of Cyprus is scheduled to enter the European Union in 2004, and the EU envoy to the Middle East praised Cyprus's role in taking in the gunmen.

They are due to leave for other European countries this week, and Cyprus will not be asked to take in any of them.

Nevertheless, Mr Ghazaleh says the gunmen will not forget Cypriot hospitality.

"The people are very warm," he said. "There have been many Palestinians who came here when they had to leave home."

See also:

12 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem Christians give thanks
13 May 02 | Middle East
New blow to Mid-East peace prospects
11 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Bethlehem clean-up
11 May 02 | Middle East
Church emerges unharmed from siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
No winners from siege deal
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