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Friday, 20 December, 2002, 15:45 GMT
Army 'assassin' recalls Cyprus turmoil
New controversy about the status of Cyprus has brought back memories to a North East man who claims he was part of a covert army squad on the island during the 1950s. BBC News Online's Bill Wilson talks to John Urwin about 'The Sixteen'.
Talks to broker a deal about the reunification of Cyprus have once again reached deadlock, despite the United Nations sponsoring talks between the Greek and Turkish communities on the island.
Failed hopes that an agreement can be reached between the two sides, in order to facilitate EU entry for the island, have brought back memories to former serviceman John Urwin.
When he left Newcastle to start his national service in late 1957 he had a bad stutter, and was looking forward to nothing more adventurous than a year of digging ditches with the Pioneer Corps.
Instead he claims he found himself recruited in Cyprus to a shadowy organisation known as The Sixteen, which he says carried out killings that could not be attributed to the British Army or state.
In his recently published memoirs, The Sixteen, he recalls the Cyprus of the 1950s as being in a state of turmoil, with a sniper shooting at his Pioneer unit during its first day on the island.
He says a few months after such a traumatic baptism, he was carrying out assassinations in Cyprus and also in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.
His targets were Greek-Cypriot Eoka terrorists, Soviet advisors and Syrian military personnel, between late 1957 and late 1959.
Mr Urwin, who has retired and lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne with his wife, says the first move to recruit him took place when he was "talent-spotted" during basic training in Wrexham.
He was approached again on a beach in Cyprus, not long after arriving on the island.
Unknown to Mr Urwin, since the early 1950s Cyprus had been the nerve centre for British intelligence operations in the Middle East region.
At the time Cyprus was in turmoil, with the Eoka fighters carrying out its campaign against British servicemen.
At the same time there were fears that Turkey might invade to protect its, minority, population on Cyprus.
His first action was carried out in autumn 1958 against a hideaway in the Troodos Mountains, after reports Eoka was building up arms in preparation for a possible Turkish invasion.
Mr Urwin said: "We were told they were running guns from the mountains.
"Although by the time we got to the cave the munitions had been moved, we took out the four terrorists we discovered there.
"When their bodies were discovered it would have put fear into their colleagues. In fact they were lucky there were not more of them there when we arrived."
Not long afterwards, agreement was reached between the UK Government and Eoka for power-sharing between Turks and Greeks on the island, with the UK keeping some army bases.
His second operation, was codenamed Pinprick, when Mr Unwin claims he killed a Russian military advisor was killed in Beirut.
Shortly afterwards came an operation in Cairo to kill a Soviet military technician, followed by a mission when the whole of The Sixteen was involved in an attack on a Syrian military base.
He claims he was chosen for his role in the covert squad because he was a good shot, kept fit and, perhaps most importantly, did not drink. All of the team were teetotal.
He said: "They were not taking any risk with me. The average soldier was aged between 18 and 20, and though I was in my teens I was already a man.
"I was a gymnast, was extremely fit, and very quick to pick up new fitness and physical routines.
"And I was probably the only man in my Pioneer Corps unit who did not drink."
There is no documentary evidence to prove his story, apart from his Pioneer Corps army records to show he was in the armed forces in Cyprus.
He said: "Because of the way in which the group was set up, it would be extremely difficult for me to provide concrete proof to substantiate my story.
"I know it is difficult to be able to tell someone something exists without being able to show them something.
"The UK Government and military would not want to have been seen to be responsible for our actions, they did not want to have to admit to our dirty work - for murder if you like.
"We were the elite - we were more highly skilled than the SAS and were trained to get in and out of dangerous situations without the enemy knowing until it was too late."
When BBC News Online contacted the Ministry of Defence a spokesman said: "We have no record of this unit."
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