UK’s bases on Cyprus are like little England

NICOSIA – For the 3,500 British military personnel and their families on Cyprus, their 98 square miles of windswept territory will be forever England. Virtually self-contained pockets of British territory in Cyprus, the 250-square-kilometer area is a potent reminder of the colonial past of the eastern Mediterranean island. Visitors are confronted with well-manicured lawns, polo pitches, bangers and mash and even imported street lights and signs from Britain. Spread between two sprawling coastal areas on the island’s southern coast, Britain campaigned hard to retain the two outposts in tough negotiations which granted the island independence in 1960. But on Monday, it was ready to let the sun set on another bit of the empire by offering to give away almost half of the territory to aid a reunification deal between the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriots. For ordinary soldiers, the island is known as the sunshine posting, offering sun, sea and good kebabs. For their government, the bases, with their top-secret listening posts facing the Middle East, are of utmost strategic importance. For some, the possible land giveaway continues a trend that started in the 1950s and reached a height with the Suez Canal fiasco when Greek-Cypriot guerrillas bombed the Cyprus airstrip Britain was using to send war planes into Egypt in 1956. Others believe the sun will never set on the empire. «Britain will remain here for as long as the last barrel of oil remains in the Middle East,» a senior military official said as recently as two years ago. Today, there is little to shatter the tranquil lives of the residents of the bases. The last attack on the bases was in 1986, when suspected Libyan-backed militants fired mortar shells onto a beach packed with families. Nobody was hurt. The main local hostility has come from environmentalists angry at a decision to erect high-powered antennae. Britain gave Cyprus its independence in 1960 but clung to sovereignty over the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs). The western SBA contains Akrotiri, the largest RAF facility outside Britain, and Episkopi, the administration headquarters. To the east lies Dhekelia, an area of garrisons, and Ayios Nicolaos, a key listening post on the Middle East. Not all territory is used for military purposes and the SBAs contain large numbers of Greek-Cypriot farming communities living under British civilian administration. Britain says the offer is contingent on a peace deal being signed. For opponents of the bases, the offer is proof that not all of the territory is needed. «They are two separate issues,» said Marios Matsakis, a local MP who has led anti-bases protests in the past. «If all that land is not necessary to them, they should give it back as soon as possible,» he told Reuters.