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Rival Cyprus Leaders Achieve Talks Breakthrough
2001-12-04 16:55:33

NICOSIA, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Rival leaders of bitterly divided Cyprus agreed in a breakthrough decision on Tuesday to hold face-to-face negotiations on ending the Mediterranean island's 27-year division ahead of European Union membership.

The move was hailed as the best chance in decades to end the Cyprus standoff, which has kept NATO members Greece and Turkey at loggerheads and haunted Ankara's long-term dream of joining the EU.

It was capped by an agreement by Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides to go for the first time in decades to the north of the island -- occupied since 1974 by Turkish troops -- to have dinner with Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash on Wednesday.

U.N. special envoy Alvaro de Soto said the two sides had agreed to hold a series of talks in mid-January on Cyprus.

"There will be no preconditions and all issues will be on the table," he said after a rare, brief meeting between Denktash and Clerides.

In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said the decision was a "pleasing development" that could bear fruit.

"It cannot be certain what the result will be but there is the possibility that talks secured in this way will open a few doors," he said.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis also welcomed the move but was cautious about over-optimism.

"I have no illusions that these talks will produce magically an immediate solution of the Cyprus issue," he said in Athens. "It needs works. It needs thinking. It needs movement. But it is a road and this road we must hail."

Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974 in response to a short-lived coup engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. It maintains a large garrison on the island and sponsors Denktash's breakaway state, which is recognised by no other country. The meeting failed to impact Cyprus shares, which ended 0.73 percent lower but brokers said the announcement of direct talks had failed to filter through in time. "It is very positive and I expect that the market will respond positively tomorrow," said Stavros Agrotis of CISCO.


SMILES FOR THE CAMERAS

Clerides and Denktash met for just over an hour near Nicosia's abandoned airport in their first face-to-face talks for four years. Previous meetings have involved so-called proximity talks in which neither side sees each other and U.N. officials shuttle between them. The two men -- old sparring partners since the days Cyprus was a British colony -- smiled and patted each other on the back when they met for Tuesday's meeting.

The decision to start direct negotiations marks a significant softening of the position of Denktash, who has previously demanded recognition as head of his breakaway state. Clerides has also stepped back from his insistence that talks should not be held on Cyprus itself -- a stance that means previous talks have been held within an international environment. U.N resolutions back Clerides as the official leader of both sides of the island. Tuesday's talks were held at the home of Cyprus's United Nations permanent representative, but the cost of the long crisis was apparent nearby at Nicosia International Airport.

The airport is a leftover of war, with crumbling buildings, broken glass and an abandoned Lockheed Tristar airliner.


EU STIMULUS

The agreement to talk came as EU membership nears for the island and nine other central and east European states, with Cyprus providing the thorniest political issue for the bloc because of the division between Greek and Turkish communities.

Pressure for a Cyprus settlement has increased on both sides with the EU's plan to complete negotiations with prospective candidates, including Clerides's internationally recognised government, next year for entry in 2004.

Turkey has threatened to annex the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus if the island joins the EU without a settlement, even though that could derail its own EU hopes.

Conversely, EU member Greece has said it will block EU expansion altogether if Cyprus is not included in the next wave of candidates. At a brief news conference, Denktash said the first meeting would be on January 15 and that the negotiations would not be a stretched-out affair. He implied that if a settlement was to be reached it would be next year ahead of the EU's decision to let Cyprus -- divided or not -- join.

"If we have to finish, we have to finish it before," he said.

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