December 19, 2008 / 1:19 PM / 10 years ago

Santa spreads cheer to children in divided Cyprus

PYLA, Cyprus (Reuters) - A U.N. official dressed up as Santa Claus brought together children from Cyprus’ estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities on Friday, dishing out presents in a rare meeting between the island’s two sides.

A U.N. aid worker dressed as Santa Claus arrives by helicopter to distribute gifts to Greek and Turkish Cypriot children in Pyla Larnaca December 19, 2008. REUTERS/Andreas Manolis

Officials from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cyprus said the event staged inside the buffer zone separating north from south was a chance to show peaceful co-existence on the eastern Mediterranean island.

Cyprus was split after a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief, Greek-inspired coup and clashes between the two sides. U.N. officials say talks to reunify Cyprus are expected to continue into 2009.

Using a white U.N. helicopter normally reserved for peacekeeping patrols, “Santa” landed in Pyla, a village on a dusty plain that is home to about 1,000 Greek Cypriots and 400 Turkish Cypriots. It is known as Pile in Turkish.

“This is a special time of year for children to have fun together, and demonstrates peaceful co-existence,” said Jose Diaz, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cyprus. “It can’t get more concrete than having children play together.”

Touted as a model of co-existence, the United Nations often tries to encourage the two sides in Pyla to mingle more.

“Anything that brings children together is good, but it’s only during such (U.N.) events that they do come together,” said Turkish Cypriot mother Havva Safak, 39. “We all want peace, and hope for better days.”

Greek Cypriot school headmaster Iacovos Papachrysostomou said he wanted to see more contact between the two communities as he ushered seven-year-olds into a queue to receive a gift from some Turkish Cypriot children.

However, not everyone was impressed by the U.N. official’s disguise.

“I don’t believe in Santa,” said Andreas, a nine-year-old Greek Cypriot. “He got dressed up and his beard is fake, but the presents are good.”

Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Katie Nguyen

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