LIMNITIS, Cyprus – Rival Cypriot leaders opened a new crossing point linking the ethnically split island's Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities Thursday, offering a boost to plodding reunification talks.
The opening of the Limnitis-Yesilirmak crossing in the island's remote northwest satisfies a decades-long demand by Greek and Turkish Cypriot area residents to shorten travel times across the divide there and spur the region's development.
"For us, it's a miracle. The village is reborn, it's alive again," said 63-year-old Maria Georgiou, one of dozens of Kato Pyrgos village residents on the southern, Greek Cypriot side of the divide celebrating the opening.
The crossing gives the villagers access to the capital, Nicosia via a direct route that leads through the northern part of the island, reducing a 200-kilometer (124-mile) round trip to a 70-kilometer (44-mile) trip and cutting the time by about one and a half hours.
"Every open gate brings us closer to peace," said 61-year-old Turkish Cypriot Vehit Nekibzade who was among a group of activists in Limnitis-Yesilirmak holding up banners demanding more crossing openings.
But the opening primarily aims to signal that the United Nations-facilitated peace process remains on track despite two years of difficult negotiations that have produced limited progress.
The crossing is the seventh through a 180-kilometer (112-mile) United Nations-controlled no man's land separating the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north from the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south that have opened since 2003.
Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded after to a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the south enjoys membership benefits.
The crossing has added resonance because travel in the area was restricted in the wake of armed clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the early 1960s. Negotiations to open the crossing overcame numerous difficulties. Part of the six-kilometer (3.7-mile) stretch of twisty mountain road linking Limnitis-Yesilirmak and Kato Pyrgos runs through a Turkish military-controlled zone.
Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu opened the crossing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony inside the buffer zone attended by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule.
Fule called the opening "another example of this pursuit of peace" and reiterated full EU backing for the talks.
"I am convinced that you can manage the historical task to arrive at a comprehensive settlement that reunites the island."
U.N. envoy Alexander Downer said the crossing opening has proven wrong doubters who saw it a litmus test for the peace talks.
"There is hope that the two leaders now can bring this country together...and the success of this project simply demonstrates that point."
A U.N. statement said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the opening and hoped it would help "strengthen the climate of trust and goodwill necessary" for peace talks to swiftly reach an accord.
Christofias reaffirmed his "life target" of reaching a settlement. Eroglu repeated his belief that a deal by the end of this year was "within reach."
The United States, Cyprus and the EU funded the euro4.2 million ($5.9 million) project.