Protesters, police clash at closed Cyprus checkpoint

Greek Cypriot police fired pepper spray on Saturday when skirmishes broke out with protesters angry that a checkpoint on the ethnically divided island was closed over what officials said is a precaution against coronavirus, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.

An estimated 200 Greek Cypriots and 150 Turkish Cypriots gathered on either side of  Nicosia's Ledra Street checkpoint, demanding it is re-opened, it said. 

Cyrus police said they made limited use of teargas to prevent demonstrators breaking a police cordon after stones were also thrown at police. 

The closure of four checkpoints, which authorities said were for public health reasons amid series of coronavirus outbreaks around the world, are the first since tensions between the two sides eased in 2003 following decades of estrangement. 

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the north in response to a Greek Cypriot coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. Since then, the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus has controlled the southern two-thirds of the island, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only recognised by Turkey, the northern third.

Cyprus announced the temporary closure of four checkpoints on the divided island on Feb 28, the first closure since crossings between the two sides were eased in 2003 after decades of estrangement.

Cypriot Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said earlier this week the closures were not political, but to account for the shortage of medical staff monitoring the crossings. 

There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus on the divided island thus far. 

Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı has labelled the closures "unilateral" and "unnecessary," Deutsche Welle said.

The U.N. has called on two sides to cooperate in providing a comprehensive response to the potential public health emergency.

The government in Cyprus is set to re-evaluate the closures on Monday.