Cyprus President urged to start reunification talks immediately

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The Independent Online

The new Cyprus President Demetris Christofias has sought a UN-brokered meeting with the Turkish Cypriot leadership.

As the EU, the US and Britain urged him to waste no time in ending the division hindering Turkey's EU's accession efforts, Mr Chistofias said he wanted to meet the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.

"I've already contacted the representative of the UN in Cyprus," said Mr Christofias. "The very first step will be an exploratory meeting with Mr Talat."

Mr Talat said negotiations should start swiftly. "I genuinely congratulate Mr Christofias and I call on him to co-operate in the process of negotiations which should start as soon as possible," he told a news conference in the capital, Nicosia.

Mr Christofias, leader of the communist Akel party, rode to victory in Sunday's run-off election on a wave of discontent with his predecessor's hardline policies towards Turkish Cypriots.

The European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement to Mr Christofias: "I would strongly encourage you to grasp this chance and without delay start negotiations under UN auspices with the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community on a comprehensive settlement."

The US and Britain also issued statements saying 2008 offered a window of opportunity and offering support. Analysts said both sides are aware this may be the last chance for Cyprus. "You have two presidents whose parties have worked hard to reunite Cyprus for 34 years. If they don't do it, who will?" said Mete Hatay, a researcher for the Prio peace institute in Nicosia.

The Cypriot press hailed the day as historic, both because Mr Christofias becomes the island's first communist president and the only one in the EU, but also as an opportunity to end the island's stalemate. "After five wasted years ... he has a moral obligation to try to make up for lost ground," wrote the daily Cyprus Mail.

The island has been split along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Reunification efforts broke down in 2004 when Greek Cypriots rejected a UN plan and a divided Cyprus joined the EU soon after.

Ankara's EU entry negotiations have been partly suspended because of the deadlock over Cyprus. The EU recognises the Greek-Cypriot government in the south, where voting took place on Sunday, while only Turkey recognises the breakaway north.

The elimination of the incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos, who led opposition to the UN plan, raised hopes the Greek Cypriots might be ready for a deal. "Now there are no more excuses ... no one is left on the stage to block a solution," said Sener Levent, editor of the Turkish-Cypriot Afrika newspaper in a column.

The 2004 plan, which had been approved by Turkish Cypriots, called for a loose federation of separate states. A UN team was expected on the island by early April to assess the potential for a settlement, diplomats said.