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Cyprus police make more arrests as racism-fuelled violence spreads

NICOSIA (Reuters) -Police in Cyprus have made 20 arrests after a spate of racism-fuelled violence against migrants which erupted in the west of the island last week and spread to its southern city of Limassol in a weekend rampage.

Storefronts belonging to migrants in the island's second city were smashed and Asian delivery drivers assaulted in a string of violent incidents which started on Friday night and continued until the early hours of Sunday.

Cyprus has seen an upsurge in anti-migrant sentiment in recent years, as well as a spike in antisocial behaviour which was formerly restricted to soccer hooliganism and drunken tourists.

Last week Syrians living in Chlorakas, a village in western Cyprus, were targeted by hooded attackers in sporadic incidents over two days, leading to 22 arrests.

Undeterred, about 500 people moved to Limassol on Friday going on a rampage which targeted foreign-owned businesses and people who did not look Greek Cypriot. Overnight Saturday to Sunday, three people from southeast Asia were attacked and robbed, state media said.

The latest disturbances have been fuelled by what advocacy groups say is a fumbled response by state authorities to a surge in irregular migration to the eastern Mediterranean island and a tolerance of xenophobic rhetoric and behaviour.

State officials frequently say Cyprus is on the frontline of irregular migration in the eastern Mediterranean, though the rate of increase has tapered off this year.

Migrants reach Cyprus from the neighbouring Middle East and also from Africa through a porous ceasefire line splitting the island.

"We had a government that for 10 years, were (using) rhetoric that more or less portrayed these people as a real national and ethnic and demographic security threat," said Doros Polycarpou of the advocacy group Kisa.

"They used the narrative, they created the framework, the demands from the society but they couldn't deliver the necessary action," he told Reuters.

Cyprus itself has a large number of internally displaced persons from conflicts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots starting in 1963, and a Turkish invasion in 1974 which uprooted more than 200,000 people. A large number of people still live in government-facilitated housing hastily constructed after the conflict.

Among the victims of the weekend's violence were a group of visitors from Kuwait, according to social media accounts of witnesses.

Senior diplomat Kyriakos Kouros said a protest was filed by an ambassador of an unnamed Arab state on Saturday after tourists were targeted.

"They cut short their visit. I doubt they will ever return," Kouros, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote on the social media platform X on Sunday, posting a picture of the departure of a group at an airport. One member of the group was in a wheelchair.

"It is the first time I have felt so embarrassed about such an incident in our country," he wrote. "This isn't the Cyprus I was born, raised, had a family and am getting old in," he said.

(Writing By Michele KambasEditing by Ros Russell)