Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, gave leaders on both sides of the divided island of Cyprus until the end of June to make real progress towards peace and reunification yesterday.
After nearly 30 years of impasse, the UN may impose a settlement if no agreement materialises, observers say.
Mr Annan, the first UN secretary general to visit Cyprus since 1979, crossed the Green Line yesterday under the shadow of the crumbling, abandoned buildings in the buffer zone, vegetation growing through their window frames.
The West has been calling for reunification in Cyprus for more than 20 years. But now a real deadline is looming: Cyprus' accession to the European Union, which Brussels hopes will be as soon as 2004.
The last thing Brussels wants is to admit a state with a third of its territory under occupation. To make matters worse, the occupying power, Turkey, is a prospective EU member itself and a serious player in Nato.
The Turkish army invaded in 1974 in reaction to an attempted coup by Greek Cypriots trying to force the island into union with Greece. Ever since, it has been divided. Turkey has stationed 35,000 troops in the north to keep it that way.
The EU is facing a dilemma. If Cyprus joins while it is still divided, Turkey is threatening to annex the north permanently. But if there are delays in admitting Cyprus, Greece will veto other states joining the EU. And the West is loath to get into a squabble with Turkey, which is the only country in Nato with a majority of Muslims.
The issue could have Greece and Turkey, Nato allies who have only begun to mend their differences in the past few years, squaring up again. Mesut Yilmaz, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, went so far as to warn recently that admitting a divided island "could heat up the situation in Cyprus, which has been at peace for many years".
There has been a storm of controversy in Turkey after newspapers published what they said were e-mails and comments made in private by Karen Fogg, the EU ambassador in Ankara.
She reportedly said Turkish Cypriots should rise up and free themselves from Turkish domination. There has been public discontent in northern Cyprus over the extent to which Turkey has encroached on domestic affairs.
Mr Annan spent an hour and a half meeting each of the leaders, President Glafcos Clerides in the Greek Cypriot south, and his internationally unrecognised counterpart, Rauf Denktash, in the Turkish Cypriot north.
"I have come to the island to highlight the great responsibility the two leaders have, to urge them to forge ahead with a shared sense of urgency and a willingness to compromise in earnest," Mr Annan said.
Mr Clerides is calling for the island to be reunified as a single-state federation with two parts. Mr Denktash is demanding a looser confederation and international recognition for his government in the north.
Mr Annan said: "I want also to discuss with them how they can move forward more effectively so as to resolve the main issues by the end of June."
As the talks took place, supporters of both sides held demonstrations, with small groups of Greek Cypriots rallying at points along Mr Annan's route. They held up placards saying: "One undivided Cyprus" and "Implement UN resolutions".
About 2,000 Turkish Cypriots also gathered near the Green Line as Mr Annan crossed. Some carried placards reading: "Yes to an honourable and lasting peace". Others held pictures of relatives killed during civil disturbances in the 1960s and 1970s.
When the two leaders started direct talks in January, they committed themselves to a June deadline. So far, they appear to have made almost no progress.
But these two have been facing each other without blinking for a long time – a fact that will not be lost on Mr Annan amid the silent decay of the Green Line.Reuse content