Turkey attempts to kick-start Cyprus peace talks with offer to open ports

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The Independent Online

Turkey has made a fresh attempt to break the logjam over Cyprus and encourage all sides to return to UN-backed talks over the future of the divided Mediterranean island.

Ankara, which needs the Cyprus issue resolved as part of its bid to join the EU, said yesterday that it would open its ports to Cypriot vessels and aircraft in return for easing the restrictions on economically isolated Turkish Cypriots.

Turkey, the only country to back the breakaway authority in the north, is under heavy pressure to recognise the Greek-Cypriot government, now a member of the EU. Turkey's Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, said: "The current status quo works against the interests of all. The time has come to move forward all together, leaving behind restrictions and confrontation."

In the capital, Nicosia, the Greek-Cypriot government was quick to reject the new proposals as "reheated food". In Athens, the foreign ministry was more polite but equally negative.

Frustration has been mounting in the Turkish north of the island as they watch their neighbours enjoy the benefits of EU membership. Greek Cypriots have blocked attempts to end the economic isolation of the north, fearing that it could amount to a de facto recognition of the status quo. With Ankara determined to join the expanded EU, the Greek-Cypriot leadership has used its leverage to block any progress in anticipation of a better deal from Turkey.

Cyprus has been divided since a Greek-engineered coup prompted Turkey to invade in 1974. The Greek-Cypriot government is the only internationally recognised authority on the island and Turkey maintains 40,000 troops in the north. A UN-brokered settlement was put to voters on both sides of the divide in 2004 but, while Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly in favour of ending their isolation, their Greek counterparts rejected it.

Turkish officials said yesterday's proposals amounted to a removal of the obstacles blocking a return to the negotiating table rather than a new or comprehensive settlement.

The sensitivity of the issue was underlined this week when the Greek-Cypriot President, Tassos Papadopoulos, snubbed the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, during his visit on the grounds that he held talks with Mehmet Ali Talat, the northern Cypriot leader.