NICOSIA, Cyprus – The Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders agreed Friday to restart peace talks on reunifying their ethnically split island, and to open a crossing in the heart of the divided capital.
Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat met for the first time since Christofias' election last month renewed hopes that the island's three-decade long division could be resolved.
"This is a new era. We're starting for the solution of the Cyprus problem," Talat said after the meeting, held inside the U.N.-controlled buffer zone near the long-abandoned Nicosia airport. The U.N. special representative to Cyprus, Michael Moller, was also in the meeting.
Both sides agreed to open a crossing at Ledra Street, a busy pedestrian shopping street in the heart of Nicosia that runs across the capital's dividing line. Ledra has come to symbolize the island's division.
A crossing at the street will open "as soon as technically possible," Moller said.
The street is blocked by a wall of aluminum and plastic on either side, with a no-man's-land of abandoned buildings and rubble stretching between the two barriers. The barriers will have to be dismantled, and the dilapidated abandoned buildings blocked off before that stretch of the street can reopen to pedestrians.
Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a short-lived coup by people who wanted to unite it with Greece.
Peace talks have been stalled since 2004, when Greek Cypriot voters rejected a U.N. settlement plan in a referendum. Turkish Cypriots had backed the plan.
"We shall try our utmost in order to come to an agreed solution for the interest of the Cypriot people, both communities, as soon as possible," Christofias said.
He acknowledged that the two sides still disagree on certain issues, but said that "we shall examine any possible disagreements together," adding that "we have to be optimistic."
Both leaders will meet again in three months time, Talat said. Meanwhile, each side will set up a group to begin working on the details of a future agreement to reunify the island.
Aides to the two leaders will meet next week to set up the groups, Moller said.
Christofias, who heads the Communist-rooted AKEL party, had pledged to meet Talat within hours of winning presidential elections last month.
The two share left-wing roots and have friendly relations, but disagree on whether to base future negotiations on the last U.N. draft settlement.
Christofias is seeking a new starting point under a 2006 U.N.-brokered deal to promote confidence-building measures.