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Communist-Rooted Politican Wins Cyprus Presidential Election

Communist leader Dimitris Christofias won Cyprus' crucial presidential runoff Sunday pledging to restart moribund talks to reunify the island, and immediately agreed to meet the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots.

Jubilant supporters flooded the streets of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital, waving Cypriot and Che Guevara flags, honking car horns and lighting flares.

"We have a common vision ... to reunite our people, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots," Christofias said in his victory speech.

"I extend a hand of friendship to the Turkish Cypriot people and their leadership," he said, thanking Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat for telephoning to congratulate him and saying he looked forward to "substantial cooperation for the benefit of both communities."

An official at Talat's office told The Associated Press that the two men said they wanted to meet "soon" but did not immediately set a date or venue.

Christofias' win makes strategically important Cyprus a rarity among its European Union partners — a country led by a president with firmly communist roots.

The 61-year-old Soviet-educated history professor won comfortably with 53.37 percent of the vote, compared with 46.63 percent for former Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides.

Both had campaigned on promises to reunify the island, which has been split since 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup aimed at reuniting Cyprus with Greece. A solution to the division has eluded generations of international diplomats and politicians.

Reunification would remove one of the obstacles to Turkey's efforts to join the EU and would ease strong objections to Kosovo's new independence among Greek Cypriots who fear it would act as a precedent for north Cyprus.

A solution will also "improve the prospects for diplomatic breakthroughs between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, advance Turkey's EU accession process, and stabilize the eastern Mediterranean region," said John Sitilides, chairman of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center's Southeast Europe Project.

The U.S. government "should actively consider naming a new special Cyprus coordinator to help jump-start bilateral negotiations towards resolving the Cyprus problem," he said.

Peter Millett, British High Commissioner in Cyprus, congratulated Christofias and said he looks "forward to working with him in the future on a number of issues." Britian, the former colonial ruler, maintains two sovereign bases on the island.

Christofias' election campaign has been at pains to distance him from his communist roots, presenting him as a "progressive socialist" and pointing out that some of his policies are free market.

And analysts stress this is no traditional communist.

Cypriots might need to launch a "diplomatic campaign in Washington and European capitals, probably just initially, to reassure leadership circles ... that we're not talking about Fidel Castro or Kim Il Sung here, but a Euro-communist like one finds in almost every Western European country, but one that happens to have ascended to the ultimate position of leadership," said Sitilides.

While he might raise some eyebrows among Cyprus' EU partners, he is far from the image some might have, said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of international relations at Nicosia University.

"You have to give him the benefit of the doubt that he's not the kind of communist they might believe that he is," he said. "You shouldn't judge him by his anti-European policies of the past but by the progressive, social democratic and ultimately pro-European policies he holds now."

Fresh from his victory, Christofias also delivered a message of unity with his defeated rival, saying they would work together toward reunification. Kasoulides echoed the sentiment, saying he would "stand by his side for a solution to the Cyprus problem."

Reunification talks have been stalled since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN-drafted peace plan in a referendum in 2004, although there have been meetings since then between Talat and outgoing President Tassos Papadopoulos. Turkish Cypriots, whose breakaway state in the north of the island is recognized only by Turkey, accepted the plan.

Christofias, whose AKEL party grew out of Cyprus' outlawed Communist Party in the 1940s, has close ties with the Turkish Cypriot left wing, relations that have raised hopes for an evenutal solution.

Nearly 516,000 people — including 390 Turkish Cypriots in the south — were elegible to vote. Turkish Cypriots in the northern breakaway state were not. Voting is compulsory, and turnout was 90.2 percent.