NICOSIA, Cyprus – Greek Cypriots demolished a wall Friday along the boundary that for decades has split Europe's last divided capital, a dramatic gesture that officials hope will kick-start reconciliation on the Mediterranean island.
The wall cuts across Ledra Street, which runs through the heart of the city's tourist area and is seen as the strongest symbol of the island's 32-year partition into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north.
Although five crossings have operated on the island since 2003, there are none in the city center.
A bulldozer began dismantling the wall late Thursday night in an unannounced move that Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos said had been planned more than two weeks ago.
"This is a first positive step as a sign of goodwill on behalf of our side," government spokesman Christodoulos Pashiardis said.
Rasit Pertev, undersecretary of the Turkish Cypriot president's office, described the event as "historic," and said it had come as a surprise to Turkish Cypriot officials, according to Turkey's Anatolia news agency.
"I believe (the Greek Cypriots) took this decision following pressure exerted on them. It is a positive step," Pertev said, adding he hoped the crossing would be opened soon.
The Greek Cypriot foreign minister called on Turkey to reciprocate by removing troops it has stationed in the north of the island.
"We are expecting, after this unilateral decision of the government, a decision that will remove the Turkish army from the area in order to open the crossing points for citizens," Giorgos Lillikas said on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels.
Cyprus has been split since a 1974 Turkish invasion sparked by an abortive coup attempting to unite the island with Greece. Turkey maintains some 40,000 troops in the north and is the only country to recognize a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state there.
The two sides are physically separated by a buffer zone known as the Green Line, patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers. Efforts to reunify the island have been effectively frozen since 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint accepted by Turkish Cypriots in separate referendums.
EU officials welcomed the move to tear down the wall as a step toward renewed progress in overcoming the long-standing climate of distrust.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn expressed hope that it would lead to further steps.
"I urge all parties concerned to use the momentum created by this courageous decision ... to rapidly take the next necessary steps to effectively open the Ledra Street crossing in the center of Nicosia," he said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was more circumspect, saying "let's hope that everything will be good." Cyprus joined the EU in 2004.
At Ledra Street, U.N. peacekeepers erected a screen that made it difficult to see the demolition work from the Turkish Cypriot side of the buffer zone, but the work could easily be heard by bystanders, the Anatolia news agency said.
Earlier this year, Turkish Cypriots dismantled a footbridge on their side of the buffer zone in the area. Construction of the bridge in late 2005 had angered Greek Cypriots, who withdrew their support for plans to reopen a north-south crossing on Ledra Street.
Pashiardis, the Greek Cypriot government spokesman, said more had to be done before the crossing could open.
"With the removal of the wall the issue is not resolved ... it does not automatically mean that Ledra Street opens."