The UK retains two chunks of Cyprus for military and spying purposes, which are under the control of a Kafkaesque regime. Declassified went to investigate what are, in effect, British colonies.
By MATT KENNARD
31 January 2023
- UK military controls 3% of Cyprus landmass
- Executive power in the UK areas resides wholly in Ministry of Defence-appointed military officer
- MoD in London ignores interview request, but press officer in Cyprus apparently knew Declassified was there
- UK military sends alert across territory over presence of Declassified journalist
- Turkish soldier greets Declassified at RAF base in Cyprus despite MoD claiming no foreign personnel based there
Driving from the outskirts of Limassol, Cyprus’s second city, into British territory is not a normal border experience.
There are no officials checking passports, no signs, no flags. There is, in fact, nothing that would indicate you were crossing from the Mediterranean island’s sovereign territory to another country’s land.
The silent border is probably by design. Northern Cyprus has been illegally occupied by Turkey since its 1974 invasion, and it remains a controversial political issue. All along the northern border Turkish flags beam out from the hills.
The British colony generates none of the same animus and that may be because of its low-key – or non-existent – profile.
When Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in 1960, the former imperial power retained two significant chunks of the island. It had been under UK dominion since 1878 when it supplanted Ottoman rule.
The two chunks were named Sovereign Base Areas, or SBAs, but they weren’t just military bases. Together they comprise 98 square miles, or 3%, of the land area of Cyprus. This is 23 times larger than Gibraltar, another British overseas territory in southern Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.
There are huge military and intelligence installations on both of the Cyprus SBAs, but most of the land is not for military usage.
Because of the non-existent border, I have to guess when I actually enter Akrotiri, but once I’m sure I’m in, I take the road that leads down the territory’s main peninsula that juts south into the Mediterranean. Directly to the south is Sinai, Egypt while directly east is Tripoli, Lebanon: Cyprus has been coveted by imperial powers from time immemorial because of its strategic location.
When on British land, the first thing immediately noticeable is its dilapidated state. On the sides of the road are piles of rubbish, tarpaulin blows in the wind over shuttered kiosks and makeshift lakes spread out on both sides. Abandoned bollards are strewn across the ground.
The first establishment along the road is a bar and restaurant named Oasis which overlooks Limassol Bay. I get out of the car and make my way on to the beach, which has grey-brown sand covered with stones. Half a dozen people sunbathe. In the near-distance, in Cyprus proper, the Limassol docks rise into the sky.
Inside Oasis, I get my first taste of what would prove a theme of the next few days. I ask two older British ladies sitting at a table overlooking the beach if they know anything about the SBAs. “I know all about the SBAs but we don’t want to comment,” one says. And that is that.
Back in the car I carry on down the coastal road, which turns quickly into a dirt track, covered in large puddles and mud banks, which really require a 4×4 to navigate.
The next place on the road is Nissos Beach Bar, which has been shuttered and is covered in MDF. To my right, flamingos are feeding in Limassol Salt Lake. Tourists are walking alongside it. Another British couple, who again don’t want to give their name, are pointing at the flamingos. “I didn’t know we were in Britain,” one says. “I did know there was a base, but not that this lake and area is British, that’s really strange.”
At another bar on the coastal road, finally a local agrees to speak to me, but, again, he will not give his name.
The man, who works at the bar and lives in Limassol, will answer some questions but only if it is not easy to identify him. He is English-Cypriot and has spent his life in Cyprus apart from a decade working in London, he tells me.
“The base is off limits to us, but the areas surrounding the base, which is considered the UK, it’s just like living in Cyprus,” he says. “There’s no difference really.” He adds: “It’s policed by the SBA, so the British Army have their own police force. That’s basically the only difference.”
The SBA police force, which operates across the British territory, is wholly funded by the Ministry of Defence.
He continues: “If you didn’t pay attention, you wouldn’t have a clue. There’s no actual border, you don’t have to go through any crossing. Most people don’t even know. And others just don’t accept it’s not Cyprus.”
I ask about the makeshift road his bar sits on.
“This particular street is just restaurants at the minute, which is going to change soon,” he says. “They’re planning on fixing the road, possibly opening some kiosks. They’re going to do a cycle path, a walking path, proper parking spaces, which will increase the amount of people coming to the area, which means they will have to increase the policing as well.”
He says that the majority of the people on the SBAs are locals. “There’s Greek Cypriots that work on the base; and the police force, the majority of them are Greek Cypriots. The people that are on the streets and the road, most of them are Cypriots. I know above them they have some British people working there, but the majority are Cypriots”.
‘Permission from the British’
RAF Akrotiri, the landing strip of the biggest military base on the SBAs, is viewable in the near-distance. This is the central hub to British bombing missions in the Middle East, being used for sorties from Iraq to Syria.
“You hear the planes a lot, it’s frequent, the helicopters pass over here all the time. People find it fun rather than annoying because they’re very low, they wave at customers when they go by,” the man says.
“You see that bit of land there,” he adds, pointing at a promontory going into the sea, “that’s where the planes land, that’s the air strip. You get a lot of big planes coming in carrying cargo, you see fighter jets taking off from there. Sometimes you see the Red Arrows. They’re not there as much as they used to be, but when I was growing up, there were a few Red Arrows every weekend.”
In 2021, RAF Akrotiri had seven Typhoon fighter jets stationed there, but the base is also central to the British war in Yemen.
BAE Systems-operated flights provide logistics support for UK-supplied aircraft and bombs used by the Saudi Air Force. These flights night-stop at RAF Akrotiri, both inbound and outbound from the Gulf dictatorship.
Just on from the airstrip sits Cape Gata, the south-eastern cape of the peninsula, and the location of an unmanned GCHQ intelligence facility.
What do Greek Cypriots feel about the SBAs?, I ask. “We don’t like it,” the man says. “Of course we don’t. Would you like it? Scale it down to the house that you own. So if you look at it as a country that’s yours, look at it as a house that’s yours. Imagine another person comes and just says, ‘right, this is my garden now’, would you like it? No you wouldn’t, nobody would like it.”
He continues: “Like I want to go fishing over there, I can’t. We all feel that’s my place, why are you not letting me go there? It’s bad enough that we’ve got the Turkish that have invaded and illegally taken a part of our country, but at the same time it’s being done by the British as well. Not in the same way. But the outcome is the same. I can’t go there. It’s a different country, when it’s not. So people don’t like it.”
There are no hotels on the SBAs, but restaurants like the one this man works in, are permitted.
“The restaurants were here before the English came,” he says. “Well, they weren’t restaurants per se, they were like little kiosks that would sell stuff because they were already here. I think they came to an agreement…that you can continue your businesses here as long as you don’t bother us, we won’t bother you, and they just moved on from there. But in order to do anything here, if we want to build or if we want to do anything, they have to get permission from the British.”
The SBAs comprise one of the 14 British Overseas Territories, or BOTs, that stretch from the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic to the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean.
But of the inhabited territories, British Cyprus is the only BOT that has direct military rule. The other inhabited territories all have a system of government that involves elected legislatures.
The SBAs’ “civil government” is run by the Kafkaesque-sounding Administration. The head of this regime, the Administrator, wields all the executive and legislative authority in the territory and is a UK military officer appointed by the Ministry of Defence. He doubles as the commander of British Forces Cyprus.
The current Administrator is Air Vice-Marshall Peter Squires, who was commanding officer of the 906 Expeditionary Air Wing during the Nato war in Libya in 2011. He said at the time the Typhoon fighter jets under his command had been “applying relentless pressure against Gaddafi’s forces”. The UK bombing of Libya was supported by R1 surveillance aircraft forward deployed to RAF Akrotiri.
Unlike other BOTs, the Administration reports to the MoD in London and has “no formal connection” with the Foreign Office or the British High Commission in Cyprus.
Despite the fact it is run as a military regime, Cypriots are able to purchase private land in the SBAs and an estimated 12,000 Cypriots live here. Alongside them, 2,490 UK personnel are permanently assigned to the SBAs.
The MoD predicts the annual cost of running the SBAs for 2022-23 to be £20.5m, but this doesn’t include some military elements based on the island such as British Forces Cyprus, which directly or indirectly support the Administration.
Like most of what happens on the SBAs, the real cost will likely remain shrouded in secrecy.
‘We don’t know’
I carry onwards along the peninsula towards RAF Akrotiri. The next stop is Captain’s Cabin, an upscale restaurant and bar looking over the sea. On the palm tree-rimmed beach, tourists lie on three rows of wooden sunbeds. I talk to tourists from Russia and Denmark. They are also not aware they are sunbathing in British territory.
By this point, the roads are barely traversable. Huge polls of water sit across the dirt track, which undulates dramatically. I somehow make it to the end of this dirt track and find another restaurant on the beach, Columbia Sun. I park the car up. The next point on from here is the huge base, the central landing strip of British Cyprus.
Towards the end of the beach is a pile of large rocks next to a fence with a warning sign on it. “KEEP OUT” it says, “RESTRICTED MILITARY AREA” and “UNAUTHORIZED PHOTOGRAPHY IS PROHIBITED”. RAF Akrotiri has arrived.
Beyond the fence, the air strip is viewable. Hundreds of bombing missions in the Middle East have begun from this point.
I decide to try to get into RAF Akrotiri through the proper entrance, so I head back into the heart of the peninsula, to the so-called Checkpoint. I’m told that I will not be let in, so I go into the town of Akrotiri and speak to a local who has lived there his whole life. He won’t give me his name or say anything critical. “I work there,” he says. “And you’ll have the same problem with everyone in the town.”
A 10 minute drive up Flamingo Way takes me to the Hamlet Pub, a traditional English watering hole opened in 1992. Run by Newcastle United football fans, on this Wednesday afternoon it is relatively quiet aside from a couple having a pint in front of an Alan Shearer poster.
The barman tells me that soldiers come from the base to drink. “They come here for some beers, for some cocktails,” he says. This includes quite a lot of Americans, he adds. “People from Limassol come here also. It provides jobs.”
Another man is having a pint in the conservatory. He says he knew he was sitting in British territory and is in Akrotiri to kitesurf.
“What is interesting to me,” he tells me, “is that there was not a single Union Jack here…you have a barracks, but no flag, nothing.”
He adds: “The capital is divided. On the north side there is a hill and they put a huge massive Turkish flag with lights so you can see it at night. It’s a big difference. If you go to the buffer zone, then you see the United Nations flags and the Turkish flags.”
That maybe it’s on purpose, he adds. “It makes the SBAs a common place to go to the beach for Cypriots and tourists.”
The administrative capital of the SBAs is Episkopi Cantonment. It sits inland and I expected a small town with different government buildings inside it.
On arrival, I realise this is not a normal administrative capital. The “cantonment” is actually a huge military base and nothing is accessible, including the SBA court where I’d wanted to cover a hearing.
The whole two mile-long government of the SBAs sits “behind the wire”, impossible to enter.
I park the car up and walk to the entrance, manned by two soldiers. “No photos, and no questions,” I’m told. “Go to the office down there.”
Back down the road, I ask the receptionist if I can talk to someone about looking inside the Cantonment. He says he will ask for someone to come down. I tell him my name, but don’t tell him who I work for.
The press officer comes down and asks why I didn’t contact the MoD for an interview before I left. I told him I did but there was no reply. “You should have tried again,” he said. I then said we had had some run-ins with the MoD.
“Yes, I read the article about that a couple years ago,” he says, referencing his department’s blacklisting of us. “Ben Wallace apologised.” I remember I had not said I worked for Declassified. How did he know what I was talking about?
“What are you here for? What story?” he asks aggressively.
I answer honestly: “I’m working on a story about the governance structure of the SBAs.”
“You don’t come all the way to Cyprus without a proper story,” he responds.
Then he gets more serious.
“Have you talked to British military personnel? Have you talked to British military families?”
I tell him I’m not giving any more information. “Can I take a photograph of your ID?” he asks and I let him take a photograph of my NUJ card. “Can I get your number?” he asks as I’m leaving.
The only place I’ve reported from that has felt this closed and oppressive for journalists is Myanmar, which is also controlled by a military regime, although, unlike the SBAs, it has a nominally elected legislature.
The following day I drove to the Eastern SBA, Dhekelia, which has a huge garrison dominating the territory. I enter the base area at the long lifeless beach running along its southern edge, half of which is in Cyprus and half in British territory.
An English expat woman is walking her dog on the beach. “I’ve lived just up the road for years, but I didn’t know this was actually British land,” she tells me. On the opposite side of the road is the “Dhekelia Range”, a huge and wild military firing range with signs which say “Keep out when red flags are flying or red lamps are lit”.
Turning into the heart of the SBA, I soon reach Dhekelia Station, the main military installation on the territory. Knightsbridge Road leads into it.
Down the road, I turn into the Alexander Barracks, which is home to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, also known as “The Vikings”.
I park and go into the reception. “No photographs” signs are again ubiquitous. The private manning the desk looks slightly nervous when I say who I am. He picks up the telephone and says he is calling his superior. “I was told to contact you immediately if that journalist turns up,” he tells him.
“You were told I might come by?” I ask when he puts the phone down.
It appears after my previous day travelling around Akrotiri, the UK military had put out an SBAs-wide alert.
When the senior officer comes down, and refuses me an interview, he looks nervously at the private when I say he was warned about my arrival. “I’ve not heard of an alert,” he says sheepishly.
I drive into Dhekelia now. Along the side of the garrison huge fences, fortified with stone ballasts, are erected with signs that blare out: “RESTRICTED MILITARY AREA. NO UNAUTHORISED ACCESS” in English, Greek and Turkish. On the other side of the road, however, the beach is viewable.
Soon I arrive at a little town that sits in the middle of the British territory but which is still technically Greek Cyprus. The map of the Eastern SBA looks like swiss cheese: four Cypriot zones sit incongruously within it.
This town, Xylotymbou, looks no different to the rest of the SBA, but when I ask people if I can interview them, I realise no-one speaks English.
Finally, I go into a gym, and speak to the owner through a translator who is working out. He has lived in the town for 50 years and is positive about the British presence. “Because of the Turkish side, we are safe with the British,” he says. He adds that the SBA is popular as a lot of the people in the town work in it. “British and Americans come to the gym as well,” he says. Everyone kept mentioning the Americans.
Now I drive down the 12-mile road – nicknamed Snake Road – which connects the UK station Ayios Nikolaos to the rest of Dhekelia. It runs directly along the border between Turkish and Greek Cyprus. Three different territories sit within about 20 feet. On one side of the road, behind a large fence, is Turkey. On the other is Cyprus, while the road itself is British territory.
A sign by the side of the road reads “NO DRONE ZONE” and the main shop is the Forces Store. The SBA police station has a British police car parked outside and a Union Jack flag flutters.
The main base at Ayios Nikolaos is the Mercury Barracks which says it is home to the UK military’s Joint Service Signal Unit (Cyprus). Driving alongside it, the huge ground satellite dishes confirm that this is the GCHQ-NSA spying station, whose activities were exposed by Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013.
One story the Guardian broke based on the Snowden leaks concerned Project Tempora, a secret GCHQ programme to capture vast amounts of web and phone data from around the world, a “joint” project with America’s NSA.
The Guardian said the programme’s powerful Mastering the Internet capabilities were “running from its headquarters in Cheltenham, its station in Bude, and a location abroad, which the Guardian will not identify.”
That location abroad was subsequently revealed to be the Ayios Nikolaos installation in Cyprus by Italian weekly L’Espresso and German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
“British and US Internet surveillance in the Middle East and surrounding regions occurs from a secret base on the island of Cyprus,” wrote the Italian outlet.
It continued: “The targets of the Cyprus intelligence operations will typically include the government leaders in all the surrounding countries and other senior public, business and military leaders, Following the pattern of British and US spying in other regions, it will also include United Nations agencies, trade organisations, private companies, police forces, militaries and political groups.”
‘Good to meet you’
Outside the entrance to Mercury Barracks, I ask for an interview. A security guard comes out and tells me to wait, which I do for around 30 minutes. In the meantime he tells me he thinks Putin has been provoked by Nato, and that covid-19 may be a conspiracy. I try to make small talk, but the interview never materialises.
The next day, an email arrives in my Declassified inbox from a Gmail account. “It was nice meeting you Matt,” it says with a name underneath. I Google it. It’s the MoD security guard. He must have found my email on our website. I don’t reply.
Soon after I go on my last excursion to RAF Troodos, a British military base which is not on the SBAs but near the border with Turkish Cyprus in the centre of the country. It is the UK’s most significant “retained site” in Cyprus.
Another Snowden revelation showed that GCHQ ran a secret programme named “Anarchist” which hacked Israeli drones from Troodos.
“The symbiotic relationship between GCHQ and MOD on Cyprus requires close interaction to ensure decisions are made in the interests of both partners,” GCHQ noted.
Perched on the highest point in the country, it takes 20 minutes to reach it at the top of Mount Olympus. I notice soon after I start up the hill that I am clearly being followed by a white car. When I reach the town of Troodos, just down from the base, the car drops away.
The installation is sprawling. I park, get out and approach. A soldier with a rifle comes out to greet me. “Can I ask someone some questions?”, I ask.
“Ne?”, the soldier answers (Turkish for “what?”). He ushers me to go away with his rifle. I go back to the car. Despite this Turkish soldier manning the entrance, the MoD recently said that apart from 100 locally employed civilians there are no foreign personnel permanently based at Troodos.
Like so much on British Cyprus, the truth is covered up, obfuscated, or distorted, so unaccountable agencies can go about their work without any democratic oversight. It’s a feature common to military regimes from Egypt to Myanmar. And it’s no different in Britain’s own military dictatorship in the Mediterranean.
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