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A group of British Army reservists are training to maintain public order and provide security for the UN Protected Area (UNPA) in Cyprus.
Soldiers of 4th Battalion The Mercian Regiment (4 MERCIAN) are training in Cyprus for the role of the Mobile Force Reserve (MFR), honing their skills to prepare them should their services ever be required. MFR is a role rarely performed by a Territorial Army unit.
The buffer zone which runs along the breadth of the country is divided into 3 sectors; with the British contingent responsible for Sector 2, led by the Solent-based 17 Port and Maritime Regiment. In the event of hostilities breaking out, the reservists of 4 MERCIAN would mobilise immediately to help restore order.
The soldiers are being trained to deal with a full-scale riot in a worst-case scenario. However, the reality is that violence has not broken out between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots for a long time, and positive noises are being made about political negotiations for the first time in half-a-decade.
That said, occasional protests – including on key anniversaries, in the Ledra Street area – need to be policed to ensure there is no encroachment into the buffer zone. But despite the slim possibility that hardline tactics will be required, 4 MERCIAN continues to train for such an eventuality in the punishing Mediterranean heat – up to 40°C, following on from 6 months of graduated preparation back home.
The 58 soldiers are divided into 2 troops, on fortnightly rotation between MFR standby and guarding and security duties. The tour proved so attractive that 179 soldiers from the battalion applied.
Major Paul Walkley, Officer Commanding the Mobile Force Reserve in Cyprus, says the result is a highly-motivated team:
The competition for selection was intense over a period of 12 months,” he explained. “What we have now are our best soldiers who all really want to be here.
Our primary role is to provide the public order capability. Although disorder is unlikely, we need to train for that eventuality. This involves practising baton and shield drills and using the Tactica riot vehicles. The other part of the role is to provide security within the UNPA, including vehicle checkpoints.
This tour is invaluable for us as reservists as it allows us to practise being commanders, officers and non-commissioned officers, whereas usually we would be attached to a commanding regular Army unit.
The group is also an experienced one, with some soldiers, including private soldiers as young as 23, on their fifth operational tour having previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Operation Tosca, the name given to the British contribution to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, is a very different type of tour to those in hostile theatres, with opportunities for cultural visits, beach days and, most importantly, the ability to stay in touch with those at home via phone and mobile video calling applications, such as Skype and FaceTime, on a daily basis.
Those with families are also encouraged to bring them out to Cyprus to enjoy their rest and relaxation period, as well as having the option to return home.
While there, 4 MERCIAN is leading the MFR alongside regular soldiers from Argentina, Hungary and Slovakia.
Major Walkley said:
We are gelling really well. The language barrier can be a challenge for some of the soldiers, although some have good English and our guys are learning bits of each of the languages.
Working together broadens our horizons and we are learning things from each other and some of the friendships made between us will last for life.