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MIDDLE EAST: Spreading Flames

4 minute read

For ten days the Foreign Ministers of Britain, Greece and Turkey met in London to discuss the burning topic that was disrupting their NATO friendship. The problem was Cyprus, a British colony and British bastion in the Mediterranean.

Four-fifths of its 500,000 people speak Greek; most of the rest are Turks. The Greeks claim it (though they last possessed it in 323 B.C.); the Turks don’t want the Greeks to have it; and the British are only willing to talk about gradual self-rule. Even before the three foreign ministers broke off in sharp disagreement last week, the debate was transferred violently to the streets.

An explosion shattered windows in the Turkish consulate in Salonika, Greece’s second largest city, and broke a single pane of glass at the modest house near by where the late great Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, had been born to a minor official of the Ottoman Empire. As reports of the incident sped across the Aegean Sea, they became wildly embellished in the Istanbul headlines. Soon thousands of angry Turks were surging through the streets, bent on destroying stores run by Istanbul’s Greek-speaking minority. The rioters shattered shop windows, tore down steel shutters, littered the pavement with heaps of merchandise, and beat up policemen who tried to restrain them. Shouting “Cyprus is Turkish,” rioters set fire to buildings and Greek Orthodox churches, while others seized a Cadillac belonging to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras (a gift from Cinemogul Spyros Skouras) and shoved it into the Golden Horn’s muddy waters.

In the Turkish capital of Ankara, police dispersed with tear gas a mob marching on the Greek embassy. In Izmir (the ancient Smyrna), Turkey’s third largest city and NATO’s southeastern headquarters, homes of Greek NATO officers were pillaged, and the Greek consulate was razed. Turkey’s Prime Minister Adnan Menderes declared martial law in the three cities. The army moved in with tanks, imposed a curfew and, by dawn, had locked up more than 2,000 rioters. Throughout Turkey more than 4,000 stores and 78 churches lay gutted.

The Provocation. In Paris, NATO’s Secretary-General Lord Ismay called an unprecedented meeting of the NATO Council. Never before had NATO met to make peace between its own members. At the meeting, Turkish representative Mehmet Ali Tiney presented his government’s apologies for the riots, but added: “Of course, there was a certain provocation.”

George Exintaris, the Greek representative, retorted: “Any government can prevent a mob from running wild.” Tiney answered: “The Communists had a hand in stirring up the mobs.” Greece’s Exintaris, with a triumphant gleam in his eyes, protested: “But I thought you had eradicated Communism in Turkey.”

The flare-up of Greco-Turkish tension was a reminder of the days when thousands upon thousands of Greeks and Turks lost their lives in bloody conflict after World War I. NATO officers have always been careful not to let Greek and Turkish units meet in mock combat, for fear that they might begin firing in earnest. Now that Greece was embroiled with both Britain and Turkey, the Greeks last week prudently decided to withdraw all their forces from NATO’s scheduled war games in the Mediterranean.

The Sick Man. The Cyprus issue, which had once been only a tiny spark in the minds of a few zealots, had now become a flame that might get out of control. One reason for this is the developing political chaos in Greece. Greece’s Prime Minister and grand old soldier, Field Marshal Alexander Papagos, has not left his home for five months, and is reportedly dying. Papagos came out of a Nazi concentration camp with only one lung and weighing 100 Ibs. A friend who saw him recently reports that he looks almost as gaunt now as he did then. Behind shuttered windows, his wife sits by his bedside. Recently General James Van Fleet, visiting Athens last week, asked to see his old comrade-in-arms and was told that the Marshal was too ill to see him.

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