Rifkind steps into Cyprus labyrinth

Malcolm Rifkind yesterday played down hopes of a breakthrough in the Cyprus dispute as he began the first official visit to the divided island by a British foreign secretary in more than 30 years.

"I want to encourage progress towards a resumption of dialogue, but I have no doubt that there will only be progress if the leaderships and the people of Cyprus want progress," he said. "The outside world, whether it be the United Nations, the United Kingdom or the United States, can only take the process forward if there is the political will on the island."

Mr Rifkind plans separate meetings today with Glafcos Clerides, the Greek- Cypriot President of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, and with Rauf Denktash, leader of the separatist "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", which no country except Turkey recognises.

Mr Rifkind hopes to persuade the two to open direct talks on a comprehensive settlement early next year.

Cyprus has been divided since a Greek-sponsored coup in 1974 which prompted a Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern third of the island. The UN has repeatedly tried to reunite the island, but tension remains high and in August the worst violence since 1974 erupted along the UN- patrolled zone dividing the Greek and Turkish-Cypriot sectors.

President Clerides recently rejected a US proposal to ease tension by banning flights over Cyprus by Greek and Turkish military aircraft. He defended his decision on grounds that Turkey had indicated that it reserved the right to military intervention if the Greek-Cypriot south proceeded with its rearmament programme. The Greek Cypriots are preparing a build- up, estimated to cost about pounds 1bn, which is planned to include purchase of the S-300 anti-missile system from Russia. The Turkish army, which maintains 30,000 troops in northern Cyprus, is upgrading its tanks and other equipment.

All this makes Cyprus one of the most densely militarised countries in the world and is stoking an arms race at the moment when Britain, its European Union partners and the US are trying to focus attention on securing a political settlement. "We have seen in the last months that, because of the lack of progress, even the smallest incidents can lead to serious loss of life. It's not a stable situation," Mr Rifkind said.