Holbrooke offers hope to divided Cyprus

They may be only a faint glimmer on the Mediterranean ocean, but the prospects for a settlement of the Cyprus conflict seemed brighter yesterday than at any time since the Turkish invasion and the division of the island 23 years ago.

Stirring the excitement was news that Richard Holbrooke, the main architect of the 1995 Dayton Accord that ended the Bosnian conflict, has agreed to act as President Bill Clinton's special envoy to Cyprus. His Bosnian experience has left Mr Holbrooke with a reputation as a mediator extraordinaire.

Mr Holbrooke enters the picture at a critical juncture. The United Nations will stage face-to-face talks in New York next month between the Greek Cypriot leader, Glafcos Clerides, and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Rauf Denktash. It will be their first such meeting in over three years.

Both sides yesterday welcomed the choice of Mr Holbrooke. "With the appointment of Richard Holbrooke ... the United States is implementing its promises and reaffirms the importance it places on a solution to the Cyprus problem," said a spokesman for the Greek Cypriot government.

Mr Denktash also described the appointment as a "positive step". He also cautioned, however: "We hope he will quickly understand the realities of the Cyprus problem."

Since he resigned from government service 15 months ago, Mr Holbrooke has been working at a New York investment bank. He has agreed to take out one week a month to concentrate on the Cyprus issue and to do it without pay. He will work alongside Britain's envoy to the island, Sir David Hannay.

Ending the armed stand-off between the island's two halves was identified as a priority by Madeleine Albright when she became the US Secretary of State. The process is also being driven by European Union plans to begin discussions next year on eventual EU membership for Cyprus.

The Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister, Ioannis Kasoulides, is meanwhile due in Washington today for talks with Ms Albright. He is expected to present a package of proposals for the gradual demilitarisation of the island.

Mr Holbrooke, 55, told the New York Times that Cyprus, "along with Bosnia, is the great unresolved flashpoint in Europe". He also underlined the importance of settling the Cyprus conundrum as a means to easing friction between Turkey and Greece, both members of Nato.

"Tensions between them generally have been rising since the restraints of the cold war were removed. So it's absolutely necessary for Europe, the United States and the United Nations to try to settle this issue," Mr Holbrooke said.

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