Europe's last divided city in sight of peace

The solution to Europe's longest-running conflict could begin with the agreement to remove two barricades dividing Ledra Street in Nicosia tomorrow. The reopening of the main commercial thoroughfare in the continent's last divided city would send the strongest signal yet that a peace deal for the Mediterranean island is finally in the offing.

Cyprus's new president, Demetris Christofias, will meet the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, tomorrow with the symbolic end to the division of the famous street widely expected to be the first gesture agreed to by both sides.

While the aluminium barricades that separate north Ledra from south are hardly intimidating, they do stand between two very different worlds. To the south the mix of high street shops and cafes, like their patrons, could easily be part of any city in the European Union. To the north is a largely tumbledown urban landscape, evidence of the economic and cultural isolation in which Turkish Cyprus languishes. The ends of the street symbolise the two communities' fates since partition: Greek Cypriots have grown wealthy on the back of trade and tourism, eventually joining the EU; while their Turkish counterparts have been mired in poverty and isolated from the outside world by political leaders who, until recently, rejected talk of reunification.

Between the two worlds is a decaying buffer zone, a place that time forgot, which in its own way sums up the international effort to bring the two sides together. Weeds push through the broken glass in shops where no customer has set foot for more than 34 years, and glass bottles with 1970s labels gather dust next to more modern rotting rubbish left by peacekeeping troops.

The UN-controlled no-man's land – or green line – first drawn in 1964, marks the UN corridor dividing Turks from Greeks. The capital, Nicosia, found itself on the front line when the two communities went to war in 1974 after a Greek-engineered coup on Cyprus prompted Turkey to invade. The end of the fighting brought partition to Nicosia, and Ledra Street was cleaved in two.

Last year, the concrete walls on the street were abruptly demolished by the Greek side. That demolition was not seen as much more than a gesture while the Greek Cypriots continued to be led by the hardliner Tassos Papadopoulos. His defeat and the election of a left-winger, Mr Christofias, has revived hopes that permanent partition can be avoided.

The newcomer was elected on a tide of dissent and has warned that this year represents the last chance for reunification. "This time we must succeed. A new failure will be devastating," said Mr Christofias. He warned people not to expect immediate results: "Not everything can be done immediately," he said.

The immediate sticking point is that Mr Talat wants to use the comprehensive UN blueprint drawn up in 2004 as a starting point, whereas Mr Christofias prefers a more recent incremental approach agreed in 2006.

Whichever path lies ahead it seems the first step is likely to come with a crossing on Ledra Street. "I hope an opening can help in furthering contact between ordinary people so that it can heal their wounded souls and lessen the distance between them," Mr Christofias said.

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