In race with time, Cyprus leaders appeal for help to find conflict victims

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By Michele Kambas

NICOSIA, (Reuters) – Rival leaders on war-split Cyprus appealed for witnesses to help trace hundreds of people missing in the violence that tore the island apart, saying time was rapidly running out for families to learn the fate of their loved ones.

Forensics teams operating under the auspices of the United Nations have been working on suspected decades-old mass grave sites on the island since 2006, relying heavily on tips from witnesses, often given anonymously.

Those missing are Greek Cypriot victims of a war in 1974, and Turkish Cypriot victims of intercommunal clashes dating from the early 1960s. But the number of individuals found and identified has been dwindling by the year.

Of a total 2,002 people missing, 1,204 have been exhumed and of those, 1,033 people identified.

“We are encouraging people who know about the sites to come and give information because unless they give information you are not able to explore further sites,” said Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar.

“We are encouraging people to come out … before they die,” Tatar said. “There are a lot of people who know.” In a rare display of unity, he and President Nikos Christodoulides, the Greek Cypriot leader, met in no-man’s-land dividing the Cypriot capital Nicosia on Friday.

They toured a lab where forensics experts from both communities painstakingly try to piece together human remains and match it with DNA samples offered by relatives.

It has been “so many years for the relatives to wait, I’m sure all of you understand the pain,” Christodoulides said.

“I’m here, and with Ersin, to examine any way in order to have more teams … to speed up the process regarding this purely humanitarian issue.” Friday’s meeting took place within the compound of an airport complex, abandoned in fighting in 1974 and used as a base for United Nations peacekeeping operations since.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 prompted by a brief Greek inspired coup. Sporadic fighting between the two communities dates from the 1960s shortly after independence from Britain.

Some 1,510 Greek Cypriots vanished in 1974, while 492 Turkish Cypriots disappeared between 1963 and 1974.

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