Cyprus leaders meet in new reunification drive

21/03/2008 - 9:51

By Michele Kambas

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Leaders of Cyprus's Greek and Turkishcommunities met on Friday in a new effort to break a deadlockin reunification talks that threatens to derail Turkey's bid tojoin the European Union.

Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and TurkishCypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat shook hands at the start oftheir meeting in the U.N.-controlled zone between the twosectors of the divided capital Nicosia.

In their first encounter since Christofias became Cyprus'spresident last month, they were exploring the possibility of anew round of talks, stalled since 2004 when Greek Cypriotsvoted against a U.N. reunification plan.

"We certainly hope that (this meeting) will give a newstart," said U.N. spokesman Jose Diaz. "I hope there will be anannouncement of the opening of Ledra Street."

The two leaders hope to be able to announce the opening ofLedra, a thoroughfare blocked off for nearly half a century,splitting Nicosia into Greek and Turkish Cypriot sectors -- themost potent symbol of the island's division.

Analysts say this could be the last chance to end Cyprus'sdecades-old ethnic division, and diplomats fear an enduring

stalemate would entrench partition, harming Turkey's EUentry hopes and relations with NATO partner Greece.

"The gap is not so big, and it will not be difficult forthem to build bridges for an agreement for the new process,"said British High Commissioner (ambassador) Peter Millet. "Thisis the message the international community is waiting for."

Former president Tassos Papadopoulos, defeated last month,made little progress towards reunification in talks with Talat.Christofias has maintained closer ties with Turkish Cypriotsand, like Talat, has a background in leftist politicalactivism.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived separately since aTurkish invasion in 1974 in response to a brief Greek-inspiredcoup. Peace efforts collapsed in 2004 when Greek Cypriotsrejected a U.N. reunification blueprint accepted by TurkishCypriots, and soon afterwards joined the European Union alone.

The Greek Cypriots in the south represent Cyprus in the EUand have the right to prevent Turkey from joining the bloc.

An accord brokered by the United Nations in 2006 callingfor an incremental approach to peace-building stalled over theagenda.

"As the Turkish Cypriot side we seek a start as soon aspossible to fully fledged negotiations," said Asim Akansoy, anunder-secretary to Talat.

Christofias and his aides have warned against highexpectations of a swift resolution to a problem which hasdefied mediation for decades.

"It's very clear that if there is no outcome (from Friday'smeeting) we will try again, and again. We don't want to talkabout failure," said Stefanos Stefanou, spokesman inChristofias's government.

(Additional reporting by Simon Bahceli; editing by TimPearce)

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