ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed that Ankara will increase rather than reduce its troops numbers in Cyprus, a move that could further set back attempts to reunify the divided Mediterranean island.
In comments published in Turkish media Monday, Erdogan added that Turkey had no need for a naval base on Cyprus as mooted in some reports but could establish such a facility if it was necessary from a “psychological” point of view.
“No, we are not going to reduce the numbers of our troops. We will increase them, we are not going to decrease them,” he told Turkish reporters travelling back with him from a trip to Azerbaijan.
He expressed impatience over the Cyprus issue, saying “this business would have been solved” if the Greek Cypriots had backed unification in an April 2004 referendum on a plan put forward by the late former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
While Turkish Cypriots were overwhelmingly in favour of the plan, Greek Cypriots voted against.
“Henceforth we will implement the formula that we have declared for ourselves,” said Erdogan, without elaborating.
Cyprus has been divided since the 1974 Turkish invasion which occupied the northern third of the island in response to a Greek military junta-sponsored coup.
Turkey is believed to maintain around 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus, although the military does not give official figures.
The withdrawal — or drastic reduction — of Turkey’s military presence is seen as key to any reunification plan being acceptable to the Greek Cypriot side.
Some conservative Turkish media have also reported in recent weeks that Turkey was planning to open a naval base on Cyprus, a move that would likely deal a terminal blow to any reunification hopes.
But Erdogan said “we have no need to build a base there”, noting that unlike Greece, Turkey was just “minutes away” from the coast of Cyprus.
But he appeared to leave the door open to such a move as a way of making a political statement.
“This issue just has a psychological dimension. In this respect, if we felt the need, we could establish a base. Our presence there is important,” Erdogan said.
There were high hopes at the beginning of 2017 that UN-backed talks could clinch a breakthrough in the long-running stalemate on reuniting the island.
But the deadlock has not been broken and analysts say rapid progress is unlikely for the moment as Erdogan reaches out to the nationalist electorate in Turkey. —AFP