Leaders of the Turkish and Greek parts of Cyprus have taken a joint stroll through both sides of the divided capital amid renewed settlement hopes. UN-brokered peace talks resumed last week after an eight-month hiatus.
For the first time in the history of the Cyprus dispute, the presidents of the Greek and Turkish regions of Cyprus walked through the streets of Nicosia for more than an hour.
Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and recently elected Turkish Cypriot president Mustafa Akinci held informal talks at a United Nations compound in Nicosia's buffer zone on Saturday before having coffee and cakes at cafés on both sides of the border.
"This is an historic day," Akinci told reporters as he and President Anastasiades strolled across the UN-monitored 'green line' that divides Cyprus. The two presidents were greeted by hundreds of Cypriots who support reunification.
The island formally split into two in 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the northern part in response to a coup by supporters of Cyprus' union with Greece. The Turkish Cypriots had already pulled out of government institutions in 1963 in response to communal violence; by 1983, they declared their breakaway state.
Cyprus was given European Union membership in 2004, but it only applied to the southern Greek region. The northern part, heavily dependent on Turkey's support, is only recognized by Ankara.
UN-backed peace talks between the two regions resumed on May 15 after they stalled in October last year.
"We will work very hard to achieve a lasting peace deal at the earliest possible [date]," said Anastasiades.
Akinci, however, warned against being overly optimistic. "We very much would like to give the message of hope because after so many disappointments we need this hope. But, of course, what we need more is not to create yet another disappointment."
The election of Akinci - who supports reunification - as Turkish Cyprus' president, has reinvigorated hopes for a settlement.
Akinci defeated nationalist Dervis Eroglu in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' presidential elections in April.
Akinci then angered Ankara by demanding more independence for Turkish Cypriots from Turkey.
If an agreement on reunification is achieved, the accord will have to be put to the people of Cyprus for a vote.
Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the resumption of negotiations in a statement released by his spokesman in New York.
"With the momentum continuing to build for a solution to the long-standing division of the island, the secretary general salutes the commitment of the leaders to move forward without delay," read the statement.
"The secretary-general calls on the leaders to seize this opportunity to achieve tangible progress towards a comprehensive settlement that would clearly benefit both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots," it added.
Washington also hailed the talks and expressed its "willingness to assist the process in any way the parties find useful."
shs/ng (Reuters, AP)