Mr Denktash told him that the Turkish Cypriots wanted to treat next year as "a year of opportunity for settling the Cyprus problem" but that the issue should not be linked to Cyprus's application to join the European Union.
"Cyprus's membership of the EU should be a matter for a referendum after the Cyprus problem has been solved," Mr Denktash said. His remarks appeared to be a rebuff to Britain and other EU countries which are hoping to use Cyprus's membership bid as way of accelerating progress towards a settlement.
Mr Rifkind, the first British Foreign Secretary for more than 30 years to make an official visit to Cyprus, held separate talks with Mr Denktash and Glafcos Clerides, the president of the internationally recognised government of Cyprus.
"As one looks at the issues, one is conscious that they are difficult but they are not insuperable," Mr Rifkind said. "I think that there is real scope for progress and that 1997 ought to be the year in which perhaps a breakthrough will be made."
However, he warned that with 30,000 Turkish troops on Cyprus and a military build-up taking place in the Greek Cypriot-controlled south, there was a grave danger that further militarisation of the island could prevent diplomatic progress. "The amount of military hardware ... is dangerously high," he said.
United Nations peace-keeping troops said there had been a noticeable rise in tensions in the UN-patrolled buffer zone on the island since last summer, when the worst clashes since 1974 broke out between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. One UN officer said there were at least two to three incidents every day, sometimes involving shooting.
Mr Clerides said he was willing to enter into direct talks next year with Mr Denktash, for the first time since 1994, but that such negotiations would have to be well prepared. Among the key issues are those of sovereignty, security and territorial exchanges.
Mr Clerides insists Cyprus must be a single state with undivided sovereignty for international purposes, but Mr Denktash wants to retain sovereignty for his self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which no country except Turkey recognises. Mr Clerides also wants international security guarantees for Cyprus included in a settlement, and a return to Greek Cypriot rule of some parts of the northern third of the island seized by Turkish forces in 1974.
The basic framework for a settlement - a bizonal, bicommunal federation with guaranteed rights for both sides - is already in place. But Mr Rifkind said: "You cannot reverse thirty years of disappointments overnight."
A senior adviser to Mr Clerides said that the key to successful talks next year lay with Turkey just as much as with Mr Denktash.
"There must be a spirit of give and take," he said. "Mr Denktash will not move from his known positions unless Ankara encourages him to do so."Reuse content