Maronites can return to Cyprus villages held by Turkish army

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NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Turkish Cypriot authorities in the breakaway north of ethnically divided Cyprus said Wednesday they have lifted restrictions on Maronite Christians reclaiming homes and property in villages that have been under Turkish military control for over four decades.

The announcement by the office of Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci came three weeks after the collapse of high-level talks in Switzerland that aimed to reunify the island nation as a federation.

Akinci's office did not specify when Maronite residents will be allowed to return, but said a timetable would be prepared shortly.

However, Cyprus' government denounced the move, claiming it would entrench the island's division and foment discord with other Cypriots who lost homes and property in the north but are prevented from reclaiming it.

Cyprus government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides dismissed the offer as "communication tricks." He urged Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to abandon "extreme and anachronistic positions" and instead work toward a comprehensive reunification deal.

Akinci and Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades have been negotiating a deal that anticipates 65,000-90,000 Greek Cypriots and others reclaiming lost homes and property on territory that would come under Greek Cypriot administration in a two-zone federation.

Christodoulides said the announcement was a product of the Turkish side's position not to return the Maronite villages to Greek Cypriot administration — a policy which he said contributed to the failure of the recent peace talks.

Cyprus' split came in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup mounted by supporters of union with Greece.

Maronites, descendants of Christians from Syria and Lebanon who came to Cyprus centuries ago, fled four villages during the invasion.

Cyprus' 7,000-strong Maronite community now resides mainly in the island's internationally recognized south along with tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots displaced by the war.

Some Maronites returned to the largest village their families abandoned in the north — Kormakitis — and hundreds more have rebuilt homes for weekend stays. But two other villages — Ayia Marina and Asomatos — remained in the hands of Turkey's army and deteriorated. Restoring water, electricity and other infrastructure would be needed to make them habitable again.

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