AP Interview: UN envoy says suspended Cyprus reunification talks to resume next month

Halted negotiations to reunify ethnically divided Cyprus will resume next month after a clash over rights to the island's potential offshore gas riches that triggered the talks break has subsided, a United Nations envoy said Tuesday.

Espen Barth Eide said that Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu agreed to resume talks "within weeks" after an Apr. 19 election that will decide the leadership of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot region.

Eide told The Associated Press in an interview that the two sides will pick up negotiations in "late April, early May, mid-May maximum."

Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey which maintains 35,000 troops in the island's north.

Anastasiades put talks on ice last October when Turkey launched a search for gas off the island in waters where the Cypriot government had licensed companies to drill, criticizing the move as a grave violation of Cyprus' sovereign rights.

Turkey doesn't recognize European Union-member Cyprus as a state and says a unilateral Greek Cypriot search for gas infringes upon the rights of Turkish Cypriots to wealth from natural resources. The Cypriot government says that any revenues will be divvied up after a political settlement is reached.

Eide said a resumption of talks became possible following a pause in exploratory drilling off Cyprus, while Turkey halted its gas search in the same waters and brought a research vessel home.

The Norwegian diplomat said the suspension of drilling by oil and gas companies, including France's Total and Italy's Eni, was brought on by commercial necessity rather than any political pressure.

He said low prices on the international gas market and the high cost of drilling have created "less urgency" to drill.

Total recently announced it found no potential gas fields to warrant drilling, while Eni and its South Korean partner Kogas said it failed to find any gas after two drills.

Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said Anastasiades is ready to re-engage in talks "away from threats and intimidation." He said the Cypriot government will utilize the time until talks get underway to make sure Turkey lives up to its word that it won't act in a way would again shelve negotiations.

Christodoulides said despite the drilling halt, the Cypriot government's energy plans are moving ahead as planned.

But without a peace deal reunifying the island, a "resource curse" would undermine the country's full energy potential, Eide said, as continued political uncertainly would give possible investors cold feet and limit revenue-maximizing gas export choices.

"Not only do you not reap the benefits, it makes things worse," Eide told the AP. "The quest for resources becomes a part of the division and fuels further division."

He said a peace deal would open Turkey as the ideal route to accessing regional gas markets.

"If you end up making a political decision for a much more costly export route, then politics eventually steals money from future generations of Cypriots," Eide said.

Apart from the economic benefits, reunification would provide a strong boost to the security of the island situated in a region where deepening conflict is tearing other countries apart, Eide added.

He also said that failure to clinch a deal now may give additional credence to those inside and outside the country who favor its permanent division.

A roadmap agreement Anastasiades and Eroglu reached last year, which outlines the key principles of a peace accord, clearly shows that Cyprus will be reunified as a federation, the official said, allaying fears from some Greek Cypriots that any agreement would give breakaway Turkish Cypriots separate sovereignty.

However, he added that "it's not going to be a pro-forma marriage of somebody that doesn't want to be married," stressing that a future state must be functional and in sync with EU principles.