Cyprus takes step towards reunification·
· Greek and Turkish leaders hold talks amid optimism
· After 34 years, partition barrier is to be removed
Helena Smith in Athens
The Guardian, Saturday March 22 2008
Cyprus came a step closer to healing the wounds of division yesterday after the leaders of its Greek and Turkish communities pledged to rid the island of one of its most enduring symbols of partition and relaunch long-stalled reunification talks.
Emerging from more than five hours of talks in the UN-patrolled buffer zone that has split Cyprus since 1974, President Demetris Christofias said negotiations between the two sides would be revived with "optimism and goodwill".
"I look forward to having in three months' time results which will help both of us have a dialogue under the auspices of the [UN] secretary general," he said. "We have to be optimistic - we agreed that we shall work together in goodwill."
It was the first meeting between the two men since Christofias, the veteran leader of Cyprus' communist Akel party, was elected president three weeks ago.
Echoing the optimism of his counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, who heads the impoverished breakaway Turkish republic in the island's north, announced: "This is a new era. We are starting for the solution of the Cyprus problem. Our target is to find a comprehensive solution as soon as possible."
The two men, leftists bonded by similar worldviews and a shared sense of "Cypriotness", will resume peace talks in three months' time.
But Michael Moller, the UN special representative in Cyprus who mediated the meeting, said expert technical and working groups entrusted with the task of handling security, governance and property - the issues that most separate the two - will begin laying the ground for the negotiations next week. Britain, the island's former colonial power and a guarantor of its independence along with Greece and Turkey, hailed the establishment of the groups as "especially encouraging".
"Today has brought good news from Cyprus," said the British foreign secretary, David Miliband. "The meeting is a step towards real progress in the region and demonstrates the sort of leadership needed to reunite Cyprus. I hope both leaders will continue to show courage and determination, and that both sides work hard to see this through to a comprehensive settlement."
Diplomats said the decision to dismantle the barricades at Ledra Street in the heart of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital - long blocked by disagreement over military patrols in the area - psychologically would help break the logjam and give a boost to talks whose outcome will also effect Turkey's EU ambitions.
Since settling into ceasefire positions behind the weed-infested line that has divided Cyprus for the past 34 years, Greek and Turkish Cypriot soldiers have faced each through gunsights.
No barricade so conjures the island's division, or decades of failed reunification attempts, as much as Ledra, where bullet-pocked buildings remain frozen in time. Behind the barricades, Turkish Cypriots have lived in a world reminiscent of the 1970s while their Greek compatriots, buttressed by international recognition and more recently EU membership, enjoyed a vibrant cafe society, luxury cars and other tokens of one of Europe's most successful economies. Yesterday Nicosia's leftwing mayor, Eleni Mavrou, said work on dismantling the barricades would begin on Monday with a crossing opening the following week.
What could be a decisive moment in resolving one of the world's most complex diplomatic tangles follows five fruitless years under the nationalist, no-compromise Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos. The election of Christofias, whose more flexible approach is overwhelmingly supported by the political opposition, has highlighted the renewed desire of Greek Cypriots for a solution ahead of a crucial visit to the island by a UN team that will assess the feasibility of talks later this month.
Cyprus has been divided since the Turkish military, responding to a short-lived, Athens-inspired coup to unite the island with Greece invaded in 1974. Thousands of Greek-Cypriot refugees fled south as Nato's second largest standing army seized the island's northern third. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was proclaimed in 1983. In April 2004 Greek-Cypriots voted to reject a UN reunification plan. Turkish Cypriots approved the plan but a month later Cyprus joined the EU.