Sunday, July 30, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — France hopes to obtain the use of a key air base in Cyprus to facilitate its ambition of playing a major role in the eastern Mediterranean.

Details of a proposed military-cooperation treaty were discussed during a visit to Cyprus last week by French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who observed the evacuation of French nationals from Lebanon by warships of the French navy.

The role of Cyprus as the hub in the massive evacuation of foreigners — and now as the main link in efforts to create a “humanitarian corridor” for aid flowing to Lebanon — appears to have given impetus to military talks between France and Cyprus.

Under the proposal, France would have permanent access to the Andreas Papandreou air base near Paphos, built by Greece to provide air cover to Cyprus in the event of hostilities with Turkey. The Cypriots had no air support during the 1974 Turkish invasion.

The agreement also would provide for the training of Cypriot military personnel and joint exercises, according to sources. However, the proposed treaty would be more limited in scope than that between Cyprus and Greece, which provides most senior officers for the small but modern Cypriot army, known as the National Guard.

Cypriot and French defense and foreign ministers are to meet later this summer to work out final details and expect to sign the document this fall.

“What Cyprus has to offer is infrastructure in the vicinity of war zones,” wrote the English-language Cyprus Mail daily.

As a prelude to the agreement, French military helicopters have used the Paphos base for Lebanon evacuation flights, in addition to the facilities of the nearby British Akrotiri base.

Under a 1960 independence agreement, Britain has maintained two sovereign military bases on the island, both of which have been used by other NATO forces in times of crisis. French sources said a treaty with Cyprus would not affect access to the British bases.

France is a political member of NATO but does not belong to its military structure. Mrs. Alliot-Marie recently described NATO as “our ultimate security guarantee if there is a massive attack. We don’t need to rejoin the military structure.”

She added that France, which has 36,000 troops scattered worldwide, is the second-biggest contributor to NATO forces. France also is one of the main backers of the European Union’s plan for a defense force independent of NATO.

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