UK ‘bases of death’ in Cyprus see controversy amid Middle East conflicts

FILE - Tornados surveillance aircrafts come in to land at the British Royal Air Force Base at Akrotiri, near the southern port city of Limassol, Cyprus, on Wednesday, Aug. 13,
FILE - Tornados surveillance aircrafts come in to land at the British Royal Air Force Base at Akrotiri, near the southern port city of Limassol, Cyprus, on Wednesday, Aug. 13, Copyright Pavlos Vrionides/AP
By Joshua Askew
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Activists claim the UK and US use Cyprus as an "unsinkable warship” as recent conflicts in the Middle East spark renewed controversy over British military bases on the Mediterranean island.

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“We don't want our island to be part of these wars,” Athina Kariati, a member of United for Palestine in Cyprus, told Euronews. “They are not for democracy, peace or justice.”

The Cypriot activist is part of a movement protesting against UK bases on the Mediterranean island, which are reportedly playing a significant role in recent conflicts in the Middle East.

“Western powers use Cyprus as an unsinkable warship,” she said. “This cannot continue.”

Numerous reports, including by DeclassifiedUK and Haaretz, claim UK and US forces are supporting Israel’s catastrophic offensive in Gaza with weapons and intelligence from Akrotiri and Dhekelia in southern Cyprus. 

The UK government has repeatedly denied this, saying that no Royal Air Force (RAF) flights to Israel have transported lethal cargo. 

RAF Akrotiri - a 40-minute flight from Tel Aviv - was also widely reported as the staging post for airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen in January, prompting angry crowds to gather outside the facility and chant “out with the bases of death.”

Kept by the UK after Cyprus won independence from its colonial rule several decades ago, the two sites - which cover 3% of the country - have remained in the background for decades. 

But recent events in the Middle East have galvanised local groups against them.

‘Leftover from colonialism’

Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on 7 October, they have become increasingly aware of a “daily increase” in flights from Akrotiri and an alleged ramped-up military presence there.

Activist Kariati says she opposes Cyprus being used to support Israeli attacks on Palestinians because of her country’s own experience of foreign interference and occupation.

“We do know what invasion means," she told Euronews. "The memory is very fresh… The apartheid and settler genocide that is taking place in Gaza is very close to what we experienced [in Cyprus].”

“We don't want that to happen to anybody,” Kariati added.

Following a prolonged period of ethnic tensions, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, leading to its division into the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The conflict resulted in widespread death, violence and displacement on both sides.

FILE - a girl walks by the graves of soldiers killed in the1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the Tymvos Macedonitissas military cemetery in Nicosia - 2023.
FILE - a girl walks by the graves of soldiers killed in the1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the Tymvos Macedonitissas military cemetery in Nicosia - 2023.Petros Karadjias/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Cypriot activists also claim UK and US actions risk making Cyprus itself a target, with their strikes in Yemen having raised fears of regional escalation.

“People are afraid of retaliation,” says Kariati. “This is one reason some join the struggle against the bases.”

“Can we say Cyprus is safe? I am not sure.”

The EU’s most easterly state has not experienced violent overspill from the Middle East - bar a stray Syrian anti-aircraft missile that hit the north in 2019. Still, concerns are rising that the Israel Hamas war could engulf the wider region. 

In a statement sent to Euronews, a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said: "British Forces Cyprus plays a vital role in supporting humanitarian and disaster relief operations, such as pursuing humanitarian maritime routes to move aid into Gaza.

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“The only intelligence support provided to Israel has been specifically through the use of unarmed RAF aircraft to locate hostages_”  they said about the 240 people taken hostage by Palestinian militants, after their deadly 7 October assault on southern Israel.

“The Sovereign Base Areas make a major contribution to the security and stability of Europe and the wider region. The Republic of Cyprus is a trusted and valuable partner and the SBAs support joint UK-Cyprus efforts on many shared challenges, including participation in Cyprus’ civilian evacuation operations,” the statement continued. 

The UK MoD pointed to its humanitarian activity at the bases, detailing that British Forces Cyprus support efforts to ensure aid is provided to all those who are suffering as a result of the conflict in Gaza.

‘They don't want to break relationships’

When Cyprus gained independence from the UK in 1960, London struck a deal with Turkey, Greece and Cypriot community leaders. The agreement outlined that Akrotiri and Dhekelia would both remain under British jurisdiction as sovereign territories. They operate beyond the reach of Cypriot authorities. 

Although the UK is not 'controlling' the country, Kariati claimed the bases are seen as “colonial” by many on the island.

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“Can we act as we want when parts of our land are occupied and controlled by an imperialist force? ” she asked. “There are places that Cypriot people don't have any control over."

Cypriot officials have repeatedly said they are not involved in any military operations, with the UK not obliged to inform them about activity in the facilities under their treaty of establishment.

Yet, The Guardian has reported that the US ambassador and British high commissioner briefed the Cypriot president of imminent military action in Yemen before the first round of airstrikes in January.

FILE - An aircraft sits on the tarmac at the British Royal Air Force Base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014.
FILE - An aircraft sits on the tarmac at the British Royal Air Force Base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014.Pavlos Vrionides/AP

Campaigners like Kariati allege the government of the Republic of Cyprus is complicit in the bloodshed in Gaza by allowing the UK and US to help Israel.

"They [the leaders] use excuses that legal reasons mean they don't have the right to do anything. But if they wanted to, they could make a political statement that they are against the war."

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The Cypriot government did not reply to Euronews’ request for comment.

'New militarisation of Cyprus'

However, the UK is not the only country operating on Cypriot soil.

French aircraft use a military air base in the southeastern corner of the island, DeclassifiedUK reports the US military has increased its presence on the Mediterranean Island, though this is unconfirmed. 

Alongside being a "very strategic point on the map", Kariati claims Western powers are interested in Cyprus because of recently discovered gas reserves.

A US firm began exploratory drilling of natural gas in 2011, despite warnings from Turkey that the move could upset peace on the island. Cyprus announced in 2017 that licenses for well drilling had been granted to Exxon Mobil, Italy's ENI and France's Total.

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In parallel, Israel and Cyprus created an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2011 that clarified the two countries' rights to oil and underwater gas reservoirs. Israel, Cyprus, the United States and Greece then agreed to enhance cooperation in energy, cyber and infrastructure security in 2019. 

Kariati claims these developments helped shift support in Cyprus towards Israel, with the country outwardly backing the Palestinians through the 1980s and 90s, alongside a "new militarisation" of the island.

"The military presence on and around Cyprus is rising in number and power. It doesn't make us feel safe in any way," she continued.

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