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Turkish-Cypriot leader optimistic on talks

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NICOSIA, Cyprus - Turkish-Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat says recent talks with Greek-Cypriot leaders made significant progress toward a power-sharing settlement and that he is confident that Europe's last wall, dividing the island's capital, Nicosia, can be dismantled before April presidential balloting in Northern Cyprus.

In an interview, the moderate, pro-Western Mr. Talat invited his Greek-Cypriot counterpart, Dimitris Christofias, to attend Camp David-style marathon peace talks by the end of the year to draft an accord reuniting the island in a federation in which Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots would have political equality.

"Cristofias tells me he can do it. He says he wants a solution, that he stood as an independent candidate because I was the Turkish-Cypriot leader. The recent talks produced many points of convergence," Mr. Talat told The Washington Times.

The United Nations' special envoy for Cyprus, Alexander Downer, an Australian, has made progress in finding common ground and said Turkish Cypriots now think only the United Nations can deliver a deal.

"It takes time to work through these details," Mr. Downer said after a round of peace talks earlier this week.

In Washington Tuesday, Cypriot Ambassador Andreas Kakouris downplayed Mr. Talat's optimistic view of the talks.

"Mr. Talat is trying to give the impression they are farther along than what they are," Mr. Kakouris said.

Mr. Kakouris agreed there has been "some convergence" between the two sides on issues such as power-sharing, but key issues remain unsolved. Those include the number of Turkish settlers allowed to remain in a unified Cyprus, the settlement of property claims from Greek Cypriots and the withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Cyprus.

On Sunday, Mr. Christofias also disputed reports of major progress in talks with Mr. Talat.

"The progress achieved so far does not satisfy us. We had anticipated more progress and more convergence, which unfortunately has not happened," Mr. Christofias said in a speech, the Cyprus News Agency reported.

The European Union maintains a travel and trade embargo on the Turkish part of Cyprus, imposed after the Turkish army invaded the island in 1974, claiming Turkish soldiers were needed to protect ethnic Turks from Greece, which had threatened to annex the island.

Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but until the island is reunited, EU membership applies only to the Greek part.

Mr. Talat also said he was encouraged by the recent election of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who is seen as less hawkish on the Cyprus issue than his predecessor, Costas Karamanlis.

Asked if he would like the United States to get more involved in the peace process, Mr. Talat said: "To an extent, yes. We don't want the EU. We want the U.N."

President Obama might get involved in Cyprus "not as an intervener, but as a facilitator," he said.

Mr. Talat is launching a last-ditch campaign to resolve the decades-long conflict before elections in April, in which his rival, hard-line Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Dervis Eroglu, is expected to pose a strong challenge to Mr. Talat.

James Morrison contributed to this report from Washington.