The village of Pyla, located within the United Nations buffer zone on the divided island of Cyprus has seen illegal casinos raided and shut down following a five-hour operation that began at 4am today. According to local media Greek and Turkish Cypriot authorities are giving different accounts of the actions. According to our sources, every known casino there is now closed, most with their blacked-out windows broken, all except perhaps one have had signage removed.
The Cyprus Mail is reporting that Greek Cypriot police closed in on the casinos run by Greek Cypriots, and Turkish Cypriot police raided all the casinos operated by Turkish Cypriots. As many as 8 casinos have been shut down.
The Turkish Cypriot team leader of the bicommunal technical committee on crime and criminal matters, Hakki Celal Onen, reportedly told the outlet that operations were coordinated by the UN and of 47 people arrested, six were from the Turkish north, three were Vietnamese, one Romanian, and the remaining 37 were from “southern Cyprus”.
Sources on the ground are telling us that no uniformed police from either side nor marked police vehicles were used in the raids. The area is officially patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and we have not seen any reports of overt UN involvement. Although patrolled by the UN, police actions are carried out by northern or southern Cypriot authorities.
According to Cyprus Mail, Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou of the southern Republic of Cyprus denies there was any cooperation with authorities in the north.
“The police carried out an operation of which we informed the United Nations because it was in the buffer zone. Beyond that, we had no association with the pseudo police or any others. Our cooperation was the information we gave to the United Nations,” he reportedly said after a cabinet meeting.
When pressed further if parallel or simultaneous operations were carried out by northern police he said, “I understand that it is possible that it took place, and by pseudo police but I have no information of the results,” he said.
Greek Cypriot authorities have stated that their operation closed six casinos and around €15,000 in cash along with 200 computers. Although citizens and authorities from both sides refer to the venues as “casinos” most of the operators prefer to refer to them as “internet cafes”.
According to news reports, officers from both sides of the zone were armed and identified themselves to each other by yellow or red hats. Pyla is not normally patrolled by authorities of the Republic of Cyprus (southern Cyprus save for the British Sovereign Base Areas) nor the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the North as it has been under the continual jurisdiction of the United Nations since an August 1974 cease-fire following the Turkey invasion of Cyprus. The UN has no police authority in the zone so illegal operations have been running without much interference for at least the last three years.
In order to keep police from one side or the other from interrupting their businesses, most of the buildings were owned by Turkish Cypriots who then rented the venues to Greek Cypriots who ran most of the casinos. When northern authorities would investigate, they were told to talk to the operator, who was identified as a Greek Cypriot – when southern authorities would inquire, they were told that the building’s owner, who was a Turkish Cypriot, ran the casino.
Although citizens from both sides of the divide live in relative harmony in Pyla, one thing almost all agree on is that they will be glad to see the illegal casinos shut down for good. Some complain that there are no eateries and only one tavern in town, next to the UN building and it closes at 10pm, while the casinos operated all night and refused to serve snacks or soft drinks to village patrons or visitors unless they were gambling.
There are more than 40 legal casino licenses in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Some of the operations are located in opulent seaside venues. In the south, where Europe’s first fully integrated casino resort is to be built, America’s Hard Rock International and Macau’s Melco Int’l Dev in partnership with Cyprus Phassouri (Zakaki) Limited have submitted the only application for that exclusive license.