Rival Cyprus leaders begin talks

Cyprus leaders launched talks today seen as the best chance in decades to reunite their divided island and end a conflict threatening Turkey's EU membership hopes.

Cypriot President Demetris Christofias, representing the Greek Cypriot community, and Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat, who met in the no man's land dividing their capital Nicosia, represent what diplomats and analysts say is the first opportunity for a breakthrough in years.

"We must, at long last, put an end to the suffering of our people and reunite our country," Christofias told reporters as he headed for the meeting.

The partitioned status of Cyprus is a headache for the EU. Effectively represented in the bloc by its Greek Cypriots, the island has veto rights over the membership bid of Turkey, a key western ally in the Middle East.

Analysts agree this is the best chance for a solution not least because the two leaders come from leftist parties and, unlike previous negotiators, have little to do with the roots of the island's violent conflict.

"It is widely believed that if these two moderates can't solve it, nobody can," said Hubert Faustmann, a Cyprus-based analyst.

Christofias's presidential election victory in February over Tassos Papadopoulos, who led Greek Cypriots in rejecting a UN reunification plan in 2004, marked a turning point in the dispute that has frustrated mediators since 1974.

'Determination'

"It is our responsibility and determination to find an early settlement for the Cyprus problem by the end of the year, negotiating constructively and positively in order to live up to expectations and to turn our island into one of peaceful co-existence," Talat said.

The two moderate leaders met in the presence of former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, appointed U.N. special envoy for Cyprus in July, at a compound which was once the island's main commercial airport.

"There will likely be further difficulties and challenges ahead. At the same time, the Cyprus problem is not insurmountable and the negotiations which will begin today can and must have a successful outcome," Downer told the two leaders in televised comments at the start of the meeting.

When talks start in earnest next week, they will move to what were once the arrival and departure terminals. Bearing witness to past violence, the bullet-riddled shell of an old jet sits on a nearby runway overgrown with weeds.

Divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup, the two sides have agreed to reunite as a bizonal bicommunal federation - but not on how. A key dispute is the unrecognised status of breakaway northern Cyprus, and how to reintegrate it in a federation.

But a deal is unlikely to come as early as Talat hopes, and will also hinge on how it is promoted in the communities, which must approve it in simultaneous referendums, analysts said. A U.N. plan failed in 2004 when Greek Cypriots voted against it.

"The atmosphere on the ground is polarised. They will have to work hard to transfer the positive climate to the people," said Mete Hatay, an analyst at the PRIO peace institute.

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