Greek Cypriots demolished a wall Friday along the boundary that for decades has split Europe’s last divided capital, a dramatic and unannounced gesture that officials hope will promote reconciliation on the Mediterranean island.
The wall cuts across Ledra Street, which runs through the heart of the city’s tourist area and is seen as the strongest symbol of the island’s 32-year partition into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north.
Although five crossings have operated on the island since 2003, there are none in the city center.
Without prior announcement, a bulldozer began dismantling the wall late Thursday.
“This is a first positive step as a sign of goodwill on behalf of our side,” government spokesman Christodoulos Pashiardis said.
Rasit Pertev, undersecretary of the Turkish Cypriot president’s office, said the wall’s demolition came as a surprise to Turkish Cypriot officials, according to Turkey’s Anatolia news agency.
“I believe (the Greek Cypriots) took this decision following pressure exerted on them. It is a positive step,” Pertev said, adding he hoped the crossing would be opened soon.
The Greek Cypriot foreign minister called on Turkey to reciprocate by removing troops it has stationed in the north of the island.
“We are expecting, after this unilateral decision of the government, a decision that will remove the Turkish army from the area in order to open the crossing points for citizens,” Giorgos Lillikas said on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels.
Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004, has been split since a 1974 Turkish invasion sparked by an abortive coup attempting to unite the island with Greece. Turkey maintains some 40,000 troops in the north and is the only country to recognize a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state there.
The two sides are physically separated by a buffer zone known as the Green Line, patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers. Efforts to reunify the island have been effectively frozen since 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint accepted by Turkish Cypriots in separate referendums.
The opening of crossing points nearly four years ago allowed hundreds of thousands from both communities to freely travel across the island for the first time since 1974, with many Turkish Cypriots finding employment in the more affluent Greek side.
Dismantling the wall is another step toward reconnecting Ledra Street, which was first closed in the 1960s following intercommunal strife.
The Greek Cypriot side of Ledra street is dotted with shops and restaurants, while further on it leads to the Turkish part of town. Reopening Ledra would provide a major boost to Turkish Cypriot shop owners, allowing quick access from the Greek south.
“I urge all parties concerned to use the momentum created by this courageous decision … to rapidly take the next necessary steps to effectively open the Ledra Street crossing in the center of Nicosia,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was more circumspect, saying “let’s hope that everything will be good.”