UN checks for explosives in divided Cyprus city


A UN explosives team on Wednesday began a sweep of the buffer zone cutting through a landmark street in the heart of Nicosia, to secure a symbolic crossing uniting the divided capital of Cyprus.

"A UN-backed team is sweeping the area for any unexploded ordinance or other explosives. We expect the work to be completed today [Wednesday]," UN spokesman Jose Diaz told AFP.

"This is a first step towards making the area safe in view of the expected opening of Ledra Street," he added.

If all goes according to plan, the crossing point in Ledra Street could be open in the "first few days of April", said Diaz - the sixth such crossing in the divided Mediterranean island.

In a breakthrough meeting last week, rival leaders - Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat - agreed that Ledra Street "will as soon as technically possible open and function in accordance with the established practices at other crossings".

Opening a street that has been blocked-off for decades is seen as a much needed confidence building measure that would underpin renewed efforts to launch fully-fledged Cyprus peace talks in three months time.

The international community has also welcomed the move as a sign of progress on Cyprus.

On Monday, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the decision to open Ledra was a "positive step forward".

Once the area is cleared of any unexploded ordinance, the dilapidated buildings, that lie within the no-man's land separating each side of Nicosia, need to be shored up until painstaking restoration work can be undertaken.

Ledra Street has been a symbol of the decades-old conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with Christofias calling it the heart of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital. The two sectors here stand only some 50 metres (yards) apart.

Last year, the Greek Cypriots tore down their side of the concrete barrier on the pedestrian street inside the old city's 600-year-old Venetian walls. Turkish Cypriot authorities demolished their side in 2005.

The Ledra Street agreement came at a meeting between Cyprus's newly elected president Christofias and Talat at which they also agreed to start formal negotiations in three months to seek an end to the Mediterranean island's 34-year-old division.

Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey seized its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece.