New Leader Seeks Unity in Cyprus

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- The decades-long division of Cyprus could be resolved by the end of the year, the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots said Monday, a day after Greek Cypriots elected a new president.

President-elect Dimitris Christofias had campaigned on a pledge to act quickly to restart long-stalled talks to reunify the island.

"I believe that it won't be a surprise if we solve the problem by the end of 2008," Mehmet Ali Talat told reporters.

Decades of diplomatic efforts to heal the rift on the strategic island have failed.

Reunification would remove one of the obstacles to Turkey's efforts to join the EU and could ease strong objections to Kosovo's new independence among Greek Cypriots, who fear it would act as a precedent for north Cyprus. The island's division is also a major source of tension between NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

Cyprus has been divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south since 1974, when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup attempting to unite the island with Greece.

Talks have been stalled since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN reunification plan in 2004. Turkish Cypriots approved the blueprint.

Christofias' election Sunday, after the ouster of hardline Tassos Papadopoulos in a surprise first-round election result last week, has sparked hope for eventual healing of the division.

"The Greek Cypriot people decided on change. They chose a person who can make that change," Talat said, adding that "we believe this decision will be the start of a new era."

Christofias has pledged to meet with Talat, although no date or venue for that meeting had been determined.

But Talat said it was enough that there was momentum in the peace process at last.

"I'm quite hopeful because I'm going to be negotiating," he said. "I want to solve the Cyprus problem. ... We want this with all our hearts and our souls."

But Talat stressed that difficult negotiations still lie ahead.

"The process ... is going to be very difficult," he said.

Christofias said he hoped to set up an initial, "exploratory" meeting with Talat soon.

"Naturally, the UN will be involved as usual, and I believe that soon we will arrange a first exploratory meeting," he said.

Although no date has been arranged, Christofias said he would first go to Athens next week, and then to Brussels before returning home.