A local resident was remanded in custody for two days on Sunday over a Saturday incident at Nicosia's Ledra crossing, when protesters broke through barriers that had been set up in response to the coronavirus threat.
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Police said they were investigating a case of assault as well as unlawful assembly and public disorder, after a group of protesters flocked to downtown Nicosia and broke through barriers at the Ledra/Lokmaci checkpoint.
A 55-year-old Greek Cypriot male was arrested Saturday following the demonstration, after he was identified in video footage having a physical altercation with a soldier. The conscript was pushing against barricades as crowds were demanding to be allowed to pass through and cross into the north. Droves of people eventually managed to cross according to local reports.
Man pushes first, soldier kicks back, then peace activist assaults young man
The man reportedly admitted pushing the soldier but denied punching him. One video shows the man first pushing the soldier with the young man then kicking the peace activist. Then the 55-year-old man reacted by using his hands to assault the young man. Police prosecutors told the judge that investigators were going through security camera footage to identify other possible suspects in the specific incident.
Police told Knews the 55-year-old private citizen walked into a local station in the evening after a warrant had been issued for his arrest on assault charges. After being interrogated by investigators, a second arrest warrant was issued for unlawful assembly and public disorder.
The man then approached the soldiers in a conciliatory manner, as they were walking away while other protesters were marching forward
The arrest came hours after protesters in the south gathered at the Ledra checkpoint on Saturday around midday, demanding to be allowed to pass through into the north. The checkpoint, which opened in 2003 to allow crossings between the two sides on the divided island, was one of seven locations shut down this week as a precaution following a decision by the President's cabinet in the Republic of Cyprus amid the coronavirus scare.
As people gathered, law enforcement officers and National Guard soldiers were holding back the crowds while protesters kept pushing and trying to break through the safety barricades, holding signs and shouting peace slogans.
Several videos showed the suspect approaching the barrier while holding a sign made out of cardboard, with the soldier nearby trying to prevent other protesters from breaking through.
In a video published by daily Politis, the suspect is seen approaching and grabbing the soldier by the arm, as the young man was holding onto traffic barricades with both hands. It was not clear what was said between the two men, while the soldier appeared to have rejected the man’s instructions to let people pass.
As crowds kept pushing forward, according to the video, the man pushed the soldier and the young man pushed back. The suspect then proceeded to physically assault the soldier as protesters and soldiers tried to break it off. The man then approached the soldiers in a conciliatory manner, as the soldiers were walking away while other protesters were marching forward.
Public opinion appeared to be divided over the incident, with some condemning the attack against the soldier who was said to have been carrying out specific orders.
Others argued that the checkpoint shutdown was unwarranted. People took to social media to raise doubts over the government’s motives, while questions had also been raised about soldiers being present at a civilian event.
The government insists the closings were necessary, at least for a week, so that state authorities could better assess and manage the coronavirus risk as well as prepare for a potential pandemic. A total of three checkpoints had remained open, including two Nicosia locations at Ledra Palace and Agios Dhometios.
More medical practitioners were reportedly getting ready to work at the three open locations, with state officials saying this would make the state’s response more effective to potential risks posed by thousands of visitors from the north including foreign students from high risk countries such as Iran.
Last year the government was also criticized after saying it was stepping up law enforcement efforts along the buffer zone to combat illegal migration, as well as crime in downtown Nicosia. Joint army-police patrols started to take place back in December, while the project continues to this day but also remains under review.
The Cypriot government previously said it was moving forward with plans to reduce illegal migration to Cyprus through the north, including checkpoint stations and surveillance of remote areas along the UN buffer zone known as Green Line.
But following the coronavirus outbreak, Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said additional measures were constantly being evaluated with state officials on the ready for any necessary tweaks to the coronavirus response.