Cyprus to hold unification talks

Rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders said Friday they will start historic reunification talks on Sept. 3, ending years of deadlock and sparking hope that the island's 34-year division could finally end.

President Dimitris Christofias, who is Greek Cypriot, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat agreed on the date after meeting in the buffer zone dividing the two communities.

"The aim of the fully fledged negotiations is to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem which will safeguard fundamental and legitimate rights and interests of Greek and Turkish Cypriots," the two said in a joint statement read by Taye-Brook Zerihoun, the United Nations' top official on the island.

Any agreement that Christofias and Talat might reach in the talks will be put to simultaneous referendums on both sides of the island, the statement said.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday he "warmly welcomes the agreement" by the two leaders.

Ban "commends the leaders for the progress made so far and takes this occasion to reiterate the full support of the United Nations for their efforts toward a mutually acceptable solution," he said in a statement.

In Washington, the US State Department applauded Friday's announcement.

"(We) hope that these full-fledged negotiations will result in an early agreement on the reunification of the island," said spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos.

Cyprus has been divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a short-lived coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece.

Diplomats since then have tried and failed to resolve the island's division. The last direct high-level negotiations between the two sides ended in 2004 after Greek Cypriots voted to reject a UN reunification plan that Turkish Cypriots accepted.

During their meeting Friday, Talat and Christofias agreed to set up a hotline between their two offices and immediately begin cooperating on the environment, cultural heritage, crisis management and crime fighting issues.

The two sides will work together to prevent wildfires, conserve scarce water, restore cultural monuments and share information on crime.

Christofias said he and Talat had taken "another positive step forward" and that both "have much we agree and disagree on."

"It is a matter of both sides adopting a constructive stance based on basic principles and goodwill to reach a settlement," Christofias said.

He said there would be no timetables or third-party arbitration in the upcoming talks — structures he faulted for contributing to previous failed talks.

Groups of experts from both sides worked together for five months to prepare for the negotiations.

Christofias swept into power in February, ousting the hardline incumbent on a pro-reunification ticket, and immediately sought to restart moribund talks with Talat. The two leaders agreed in March to revive the peace process.

To underscore their mutual commitment to peace, they opened a north-south crossing point in the heart of the divided capital and agreed Friday to look into opening more crossing points.