NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Dozens of people pushed aside police barriers Saturday in Cyprus to protest the closing of a crossing point in the medieval core of the ethnically divided island nation’s capital.
Protesters chanted and raised placards opposing the closure of the Nicosia crossing point, which the Cypriot government said it ordered to help prevent the possible spread of the new coronavirus.
The government shut four of nine such crossings along the 180-kilometer (120-mile) length of the United Nations-controlled buffer zone that separates a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north from an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south.
There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus found so far on either side of the divide.
Cyprus’ justice minister said he instructed the chief of police to investigate reports that protesters attacked a Greek Cypriot soldier at the crossing point.
Justice Minister George Savvides said in a written statement that violence against individuals carrying out assigned duties is “completely unacceptable” and that anyone committing such acts should be immediately brought to justice.
Cypriot media broadcast video that allegedly captured the attack on the soldier. The video shows a man using his open palm to shove the soldier in the face while trying to get past the police barriers.
Protesters said the closings would do nothing to prevent the virus’ spread and ascribed political motives to the move.
But Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said “there was no choice” other than to temporarily shut some of the crossing points to better enable police and medical staff to screen for possible carriers of the virus crossing either northward or southward.
“Those who think that they’re causing a political problem for the government aren’t justified,” Anastasiades told reporters. “The government has an obligation to take steps safeguarding the public’s health.”
Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and although Cyprus is a European Union member, only the southern part enjoys full membership benefits.
Anastasiades said the fact that there are over 3,000 Iranian students and their relatives living in the north was a key reason prompting the closings.
Iran has the highest death toll in the world outside of China, the epicenter of the virus.
Anastasiades said he told Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci that the move aimed to protect the communities on both sides of the divide.
Akinci criticized the closings, saying that any action should have been taken at the island nation’s entry points and in consultation with Turkish Cypriot authorities.
Anastasiades said he told Akinci that the movement of people is unavoidable and that the Turkish Cypriot leader made no argument disputing that.