Offbeat task for regiment

Soldiers from the Royal Engineers on overseas deployment with the UN in Cyprus.  ''Picture: Richard Cave
Soldiers from the Royal Engineers on overseas deployment with the UN in Cyprus. ''Picture: Richard Cave
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The streets of Nicosia’s buffer zone haven’t changed much in the past 40 years.

The demilitarised zone, which runs through the city keeping Turkish and Greek forces apart, still bears the scars of the fighting that broke out there in 1974.

A stationery shop still has books on its shelves, homes have photographs on their walls, and cars sit untouched in garages.

And between them all, soldiers in blue berets still patrol the streets every day.

As reported in The News, around 46 reservists from the Hilsea-based D Company of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment Third Battalion are nearing the end of their six-month tour in Cyprus.

The soldiers, who are known as the Tigers, are there to provide security as part of the Mobile Force Reserve, patrolling the United Nations protected area and responding to any incidents which may arise in the buffer zone.

But elsewhere along the green line are around 280 soldiers from 28 Engineer Regiment, including several from Portsmouth.

The regiment is usually based in Hameln, Germany, but this is their last operational deployment before they are formally disbanded in June as part of army restructuring plans.

Like their colleagues from PWRR, those from 28 Engineer Regiment are also responsible for patrolling a section of the buffer zone – a wide area of land which acts as a demilitarised zone between Turkish and Greek military forces on the island.

The 180km stretch has been that way for the past 40 years, in response to the Turkish military retaliation to a Greek coup in Cyprus.

Once a ceasefire was agreed, it became the job of the United Nations peacekeeping mission to ensure trouble does not flare up again.

As part of that mission, called Operation Tosca by the British, the soldiers from 28 Engineer Regiment are responsible for around 30km of land in central Nicosia.

As well as patrolling various routes through abandoned urban streets, they supervise construction projects, identify unsafe buildings, and resolve farming disputes.

The majority of incidents they deal with on a daily basis involve reports of stone-throwing and name-calling between the Turkish and Greek sides, along with incursions into the buffer zone by farmers and hunters.

Lieutenant Colonel Chas Story is the commanding officer of 28 Engineer Regiment.

He says: ‘Op Tosca is an odd mission.

‘It’s something very different to what we have been used to in Afghanistan or Iraq.

‘It is essentially to keep the buffer zone, which has been here for 40 years, stable to enable the politicians to try and develop a settlement that suits both communities from the south and north.

‘We are dealing with personal relationships, low-level issues, keeping things calm and looking to stop minor incidents escalating.

‘It provides a great chance for the guys to use skills they have learnt on other operations and it is good training for them to use body language to defuse matters and develop their diplomatic skills.

‘So far it has been a successful tour.’

The soldiers patrol the buffer zone on foot, on bikes, and in cars.

Lance Corporal Kyle Hughes-Francis, pictured inset far left, works in the regiment’s motor transport section.

The 28-year-old, from Fratton, says: ‘It is definitely a bit more chilled out here than what you would find on other deployments, but everybody still works hard.

‘I work with some really great guys in my section which helps.

‘I’m also a physical training instructor and there’s lots of opportunities here to do different things as far as that is concerned.

‘Most of all now I’m looking forward to getting home to my wife Danielle and kids Alysha and Ava.’

Corporal Amy Dillon, pictured inset, has been in the army for more than six years.

The 22-year-old, from Havant, is looking forward to trading one sunny island for another, as she is heading for a holiday in Majorca with friends once her time in Cyprus is over.

Cpl Dillon says: ‘I’ve done Afghanistan and compared to that this is completely different.

‘It’s still hard being away from home, though.

‘Mostly it’s responding to things like stone throwing and shouting and just telling them to stop it, really.

‘Once I’ve finished this it will be the end of my time in the army, although I haven’t decided what to do yet.

‘I’ve really enjoyed my time in the army but I want to try something else now.

‘It’s been a fantastic job and I’ve travelled the world.’

Outside of Afghanistan, the British contribution to the Cyprus peacekeeping mission is the UK’s biggest operation overseas.