Straw promises to help end isolation of Northern Cyprus

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told the Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister, Mehmet Ali Talat, yesterday that he would help end the isolation of Northern Cyprus.

It was the first time a British minister has officially received a Turkish Cypriot politician, a meeting seen by both sides as significant. Mr Straw, who described the meeting as "warm and constructive", said: "I assured Turkish Cypriots of Britain's commitment to help implement the EU policy to end their economic isolation, and to bring them closer to the European Union, so that all Cypriots can enjoy the benefits of EU membership in peace and prosperity."

Mr Talat said: "The hardship of the Turkish Cypriots is now at a top level. The major problem is unemployment so we have ongoing emigration ... without improvement in the isolation, people will be desperate."

Efforts to end three decades of division on Cyprus have been at a standstill since April when Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected a United Nations plan to reunify the Island. Turkish Cypriots voted by a 2-1 majority in favour of the proposals. EU politicians, furious with the Greek rejection of the peace plan, promised to try to ease the economic isolation of Northern Cyprus. One EU diplomat said: "We think it wrong to isolate the Turkish Cypriots for the fact that Greeks have voted 'no' in the referendum."

The Turkish Cypriots are delighted that there has been a diplomatic thaw. Mr Talat said: "Meeting with the British Foreign Secretary is very unusual compared with the past. This is a signal given to the Greek Cypriots that their behaviour is not acceptable." Next week the European Commission will propose reopening Turkish Cypriot ports which have been closed to international trade for 30 years. The Commission will also announce a €259m (£173m) package to boost economic development in Northern Cyprus. Greece is likely to try to block the plans but it could find itself outvoted.

There are some concerns that easing the isolation of Northern Cyprus will lead to a de facto recognition of the partition of the island. Mr Talat denied this was the case. "Our position is to get rid of isolation, improve the economy for Turkish citizens, increase the possibility of their survival in order to be ready in the meantime for reunification," he said.

He also called for Northern Cyprus to benefit from preferential trading tariffs and for the international community to allow direct flights to the country, rather than forcing them to go via Turkey. "Direct flights to Cyprus are very crucial because it undermines our competitiveness. The tickets are expensive, the [journey] time is long, it is not possible to compete," he said.

Mr Talat said: "The future is blurry but one thing is very clear. Turkish Cypriots cannot wait, begging the Greek Cypriots to let them join indefinitely."

Serdar Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister, said Greek Cypriots should be given a deadline to accept the UN peace plan. "This time limit should not be longer than a year," he told Austrian radio.

Cyprus has been split into a Greek Cypriot-controlled south and a Turkish-occupied north since Turkey launched an invasion in 1974 after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.