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Divided Cyprus Moves a Step Closer To Unity

Rival Cypriot leaders agreed to reopen a landmark street running through the heart of Cyprus's divided capital in a meeting Friday, March 20, to kickstart peace talks, top UN representative Michael Moller said.

Ledra Street in Nicosia

Ledra Street in Nicosia no longer has the wall, but is still blocked because of military patrols

Leaders of Cyprus' Greek and Turkish communities agreed on Friday to relaunch reunification talks and opened a street that symbolizes the island's division. The meeting between the two men raised hopes that are also crucial for Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Reading from a joint statement issued by Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, Moller said "the leaders have also agreed that Ledra Street will as soon as technically possible open and function in accordance with the established practices at other crossings."

Demetris Christofias

Demetris Christofias waves to supporters after elections on Feb. 17

Speaking later in the day, Nicosia Mayor Eleni Mavrou said she was hopeful the street would be reopened by the end of the month.

"Technical work will begin on Monday and I'm optimistic that the crossing at Ledra Street will open by March 31," she told state radio.

Ledra Street has been a symbol of the decades-old conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with Christofias calling it the heart of Nicosia, the world's last divided capital.

"Reduce the gap in the soul"

Last year, the Greek Cypriots tore down their side of the concrete barrier on the pedestrian street inside the old city's 600-year-old Venetian walls. Turkish Cypriot authorities demolished their side in 2005.

Following Moller's intervention, the Greek and Turkish-Cypriot authorities hammered out a deal to open the barricaded street.

Ledra Street

Ledra Street

It will be the sixth crossing point opened since April 2003 when Turkish Cypriots for the first time lifted entry restrictions for Greek Cypriots.

The announcement came at a meeting between newly elected Christofias, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Talat at which they also agreed to start formal negotiations in three months' time to seek an end to the Mediterranean island's 34-year division.

Speaking ahead of the anticipated deal on reopening Ledra Street, Christofias said "this opening is very welcome. By tradition it is the heart of Nicosia, the heart of the people of Nicosia. It will bring further communication with people in order to reduce the gap in the soul and heart of the people.

"It will convey the message that leaders are ready to make a step forward to a solution. I'm ready, it's to Talat to tell me."

Last March, the border post on the southern side of the street was demolished.

Four decades of peacekeepers

The barricades were among the first erected after intercommunal violence flared in the city in 1963. At the start of 1964, UN peacekeeping troops arrived on the island and have remained ever since.

UN peacekeepers walk along so-called Green Line separating Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities

UN peacekeepers walk along so-called "Green Line" separating Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities

The two sectors stand only around 50 meters (yards) apart at Ledra Street but it may take several days for the crossing to be opened as the area must be cleared of landmines and the buildings made safe after decades of neglect.

Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey seized its northern third in response to an short-lived, Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece.

A UN bid to reunite the island failed in 2004 when the Greek Cypriots voted against the plan in a referendum, although the Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly in favor. Nicosia Municipality said it would need at least five days to complete the works which are expected to be carried out by Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot municipalities of Nicosia in conjunction with the United Nations.

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