- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A warning by the senior Turkish general that a military presence in Cyprus is essential to Turkish security has cast doubt about Turkey’s willingness to withdraw its forces from this east Mediterranean island.

At stake is Turkey’s candidacy for membership in the European Union and the future of the northern part of the island know as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

The statement by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff and in effect commander of the Turkish armed forces, has created controversy in Turkey and cast a chill on Cyprus as it prepares to enter the EU in May.

Despite EU pressure to find a solution on Cyprus, so far Turkey has resisted any linkage between the Cyprus problem and its own EU candidacy.

Some diplomats consider the Cyprus deadlock as a major barrier to Turkey’s EU aspirations.

Greek Cypriot government spokesman Kypros Chrysostomides accused Gen. Ozkok of “once again showing the true face of the occupation in Cyprus,” where Turkey maintains some 35,000 troops in the north as a shield for its ethnic minority.

In Turkey, the daily Hurriyet, the country’s top circulation newspaper, said Gen. Ozkok’s statement reflects the feeling of the Turkish armed forces.

Gen. Ozkok made his statement in an interview with the Istanbul Radikal, a center-left daily, highlighting the strategic importance of Cyprus for the defense of the country’s southern areas.

Cyprus, he told Mehmet Ali Kislale, a columnist for the Radikal, “is situated on a strategic line that extends to Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, India and Singapore.”

By withdrawing its armed forces from the northern part of Cyprus, according to Gen. Ozkok, “Turkey could no longer be effective there. Cyprus would become a place where we could not move with ease. We already have problems in the west. If we get problems in the south too, Turkey would become encircled.”

Diplomats say the concept has been well known ever since the Turkish army landed on the island following an abortive Greek coup to link it with Greece in 1974.

The Greek Cypriot government, which controls two thirds of Cypriot territory, feels its forthcoming membership in the EU will pressure the Turkish army to withdraw.

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