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In ethnically split Cyprus, buffer zone tensions persist after decades, a UN official says

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NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Decades on from the ethnic division of Cyprus, tensions persist along the 180-kilometer buffer zone separating breakaway Turkish Cypriots from Greek Cypriots in the internationally recognized south, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping force on the island said Monday.

Colin Stewart told a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the force’s deployment that peacekeepers record “hundreds of incidents” every month and “work hard to de-escalate tensions before they get out of hand.”

He said the nature of the military violations has grown more sophisticated and dangerous, citing the installation of “sophisticated surveillance equipment and major new military infrastructure.”

“In recent years, there has also been a growing challenge to the status quo of the ceasefire lines, the integrity of the buffer zone and to the UN’s mandated authority,” Stewart said.

In August last year, angry Turkish Cypriots punched and kicked a group of U.N. peacekeepers who obstructed crews working on the road that would circumvent a checkpoint on the northern fringe of a British military base, one of two bases that the U.K. retained after Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960.

A deal the two sides had apparently reached on the contentious road remains in limbo.

The peacekeeping force was originally deployed in March 1964 to quell armed violence between the majority Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriot minority. However, Cyprus’ ethnic division solidified a decade later when Turkey invaded in the immediate aftermath of a coup aiming at uniting the island with Greece.

Since 1964, more than 150,000 peacekeepers from 43 countries have served with UNFICYP – one of the UN’s longest-running deployments — with 187 soldiers and staff losing their lives while serving with the mission.

Soldiers currently serving with the force received medals during the ceremony which was attended by around 80 veterans from previous deployments going back to 1964, representing seven of the troop- and police-contributing countries, including Austria, Sweden and Argentina.

María Ángela Holguín Cuellar, the U.N. chief’s new personal envoy for Cyprus, is currently spearheading an effort to determine if dormant peace talks can be revived, nearly seven years after the most recent attempt at a settlement failed.

Stewart said Cypriots themselves and the international community “must spare no effort” to support a return to talks.

“Because we just don’t know if there will be another chance if we miss this current opportunity,” he said. “We can’t afford to have any more such anniversaries.”

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