CYPRUS

Divisive crossing in Nicosia opens

4 min

A barricaded street that has symbolised Cyprus's ethnic partition opened on Thursday as part of a deal between the newly elected Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Yalat to resume peace talks.

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A symbolic crossing through the UN-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia, the world's last divided capital, is set to open on Thursday as a new Cypriot peace drive gains momentum.

Officials from both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities have confirmed that the event should take place around 9:00 am (0600 GMT), ending a 45-year closure of legendary Ledra Street in the heart of the Old Town.

Nicosia Mayor Eleni Mavrou and her counterpart in the north of the capital, Cemal Bulutoglulari, will attend a short ceremony, along with representatives from the EU and other diplomats.

The reopening signals a new climate of trust on the Mediterranean island that has been divided for 34 years, with a top UN official saying he felt a "palpable sense of momentum" toward a solution.

The two sectors stand less than 100 metres (yards) apart on what is known in Turkish as Lokmaci Street, and the area has had to be checked for unexploded ordnance from the 1974 fighting that led to the island's division and buildings shored up after decades of neglect.

Turkish Cypriot authorities tore down their barrier across the north-south street in 2005, and the Greek Cypriots followed suit last year.

The barricades were among the first to be erected after intercommunal violence flared in 1963. That led to the arrival the following year of the UN peacekeepers who have remained ever since.

Ledra Street is at the heart of Nicosia's old commercial district and, as such, witnessed incidents that once gave it the monicker Murder Mile.

During the guerrilla war against British colonialism that led to independence in 1960 it was a popular shopping thoroughfare, and a number of British soldiers were shot dead there by pistol-packing freedom fighters hidden among the crowds.

Today the street is still a popular promenade for families with young children, drawn by fast food restaurants and ice cream parlours, and also attracts tourists and south Asian and eastern European workers, many of whom live in the Old Town.

Thursday's move was agreed at a meeting in March between newly elected Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who also agreed to resume reunification talks in June.

It coincides with a three-day visit by top UN official Lynn Pascoe to advance the reunification efforts.

"There is a very positive tone here in Cyprus at the moment and a palpable sense of momentum," Pascoe told reporters on Wednesday.

"I think Cypriots are right to have high expectations. I'm encouraged and I will pass this on to the (UN) secretary general (Ban Ki-moon) when I talk with him."

Pascoe, the American head of the UN department of political affairs, held another round of talks with Christofias before heading north to meet Talat again.

Talat spokesman Hasan Ercakica described the meeting as productive, adding that Pascoe had "seized the chance to acquire information regarding the way the Turkish Cypriot side considers the issue."

Ledra Street, a bustling area inside the 600-year-old Venetian walls, will be the sixth crossing on the island to open since April 2003 when Turkish Cypriots for the first time lifted entry curbs for Greek Cypriots.

Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey seized its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece.

A UN plan to reunite the island failed in 2004 when the Greek Cypriots voted against it in a referendum, although the Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly in favour.

Excitement has been mounting both north and south of the "Green Line," the UN-administered demarcation zone.

"We'll be able to go to McDonald's whenever we want. Everyone here has been waiting for a year and a half for the opening," said Kazim Altuncuoglu, a 19-year-old Turkish Cypriot student.

Greek Cypriots Zoe and Andreas Pettachi, 60 and 62, say they are very happy to see the reunification of the two commercial neighbourhoods.

Before the partition, Andreas's father worked in a market on the Turkish side. Zoe's grandfather had a tailor's shop, slightly farther away on another street that remains closed.

"We were all living very well together," Andreas said.

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