UN chief urges Cyprus' leaders to seize 'historic opportunity' for peace deal
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United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called Friday on rival Cypriot leaders to seize a "historic opportunity" to bring peace to their island, at negotiations aimed at ending its 40-year division.
"This offers a historic opportunity to reach a comprehensive settlement to the conflict that has divided Cyprus for too many decades," Guterres told reporters in the Alpine resort of Crans-Montana.
Cyprus, an EU-member, has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and later occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired putsch seeking union with Greece.
Turkey maintains more than 35,000 troops there, and any prospects of reunification largely hinge on a drastic reduction of Ankara's military presence.
Several previous peace drives have stumbled over the issue, with Greek-Cypriots demanding a total withdrawal of what they say is an occupying force and minority Turkish-speakers fearful of ethnic violence in the event of a pullout.
A diplomatic source told AFP that Ankara was prepared to slash its troop numbers by as much as 80 percent, but Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu went on national television Thursday to deny a withdrawal was planned.
President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek-Cypriot leader who heads the island's internationally recognised government, and his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart Mustafa Akinci are representing their respective communities.
They are joined by delegations from Cyprus's so-called guarantor powers Greece, Turkey and Britain.
The talks began in a buoyant mood on Wednesday but a sources close to the discussions said that the atmosphere in the two camps had hardened on a number of issues -- particularly the Turkish-Cypriot demand for an alternating presidency in any future united state.
Anastasiades said Friday's sessions were "productive" but a range of festering disputes will need to be resolved before a deal is struck.
UN envoy Espen Barth Eide continued his frantic shuttle diplomacy Friday morning, meeting with Anastasiades and Akinci to push them to reach a broad-brush consensus ahead of Guterres' arrival.
1,200 still missing
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus was one of postwar Europe's bloodiest episodes and its effects are still felt on the Mediterranean island today.
More than 2,000 people are thought to have died in the offensive and massacres carried out by Greek and Turkish Cypriot militias. At least 1,200 are still missing.
If the dispute over troops can be settled then a daunting list of additional challenges lie in wait for negotiators -- not least the likely multi-billion-euro cost of relocating and compensating thousands of families who fled their homes in 1974.
With Anastasiades facing re-election next year and Ankara's increasingly strained ties with the European Union, Eide has called the Crans-Montana talks the "best chance" for a settlement.
Any deal would however need to be voted through in twin referendums, which is far from a given: In 2004, the last UN-brokered accord was accepted by Turkish-Cypriots but roundly rejected by Greek speakers.
The United Nations retains around 950 peacekeepers on the island and speculation mounted ahead of the talks that the UN was considering cutting back on its Cyprus programme were a deal to prove elusive.
Guterres said Friday that his organisation was "not threatening the parties in any way".
"The leaders, the communities in Cyprus, the guarantor powers, have a responsibility to grasp the opportunity for peace and to bring a comprehensive settlement owed to Cyprus," Guterres said.
"But there is still a lot of work to be done."