NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey has granted access to 30 suspected grave sites in military-controlled areas in northern Cyprus, a move that will significantly speed up exhumation work, an official with a committee searching for missing persons on the war-divided island nation said Thursday.
Paul-Henri Arni, the U.N.-appointed member of the Committee on Missing Persons, said such access will accelerate the work to an estimated three years. He said it's important to move ahead quickly because many witnesses with information on such graves are elderly.
"It's a race against time," Arni told The Associated Press. "The only credible sources of information we have are these witnesses and they're dying fast."
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Some 1,500 Greek Cypriots and 500 Turkish Cypriots had disappeared from the mid-1960s during fighting between the two communities, as well as the invasion.
In the last decade, the remains of 1,020 people have been exhumed.
Turkey still maintains some 35,000 troops in the island's north, where Turkish Cypriots declared independence that's recognized only by Ankara.
It's not the first time that Turkey has allowed crews to dig in military-controlled areas that dot the island's north and where access is strictly prohibited, but Arni said work has proceeded too slowly. He said his group has information of possible burials regarding all 30 sites, but declined to give an estimate on how many people might be buried there.
Turkey's decision comes as U.N.-brokered talks aimed at reunifying Cyprus have been significantly ramped up.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Turkish Cypriot leader's confirmation that Turkey has granted access to the sites, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. chief "is encouraged by the steps being taken to build trust and confidence between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities as the two sides have begun intensified talks this month," Dujarric said.
The Cypriot government welcomed Turkey's move, adding that it now expects Ankara to do more to help uncover the fate of the missing, including granting access to its military archives as well as allowing crews into areas where exhumed remains have been reburied.