- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Mehmet Ali Talat grinned as he tasted vanilla ice cream in the heart of Nicosia’s Old Town.

“Very good,” he said in English and, to emphasize, translated his enthusiasm into Greek: poli kala. His bodyguards relaxed.

To the stunned Greek Cypriots watching him last week, the seemingly ordinary scene carried a political portent:

“Ice cream diplomacy” became a mantra for some newspaper headline writers, while some editorialists and pundits opined that the tiny border opening would improve the political climate before the start of negotiations on how to unite this divided Mediterranean island.

Mr. Talat’s official title is president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a breakaway ministate that rejects Greek Cypriot authority over the island.

The Greek Cypriot press calls him “the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community.”

Mr. Talat’s taste of Greek Cypriot ice cream — his first in 45 years — followed an agreement by the two sides to remove the barricade that has divided the narrow Ledra Street into two parts since 1963,

The Greek Cypriots control the south, the Turkish Cypriot the north.

Ledra Street epitomizes the recent history of Cyprus.

During the struggle for independence from British colonial rule in the 1950s it was known as “the murder mile,” where Greek Cypriot fighters gunned down British soldiers and even their wives.

After the bloody 1963 communal clashes, it was reduced to two separate strips, the dividing barricade reinforced with concrete after the 1974 Turkish invasion.

It was never “the main shopping avenue” as some foreign newspapers called it, but a narrow alley lined with shops selling bags with “I love Cyprus” embossed on them and statuettes of Aphrodite, the legendary Greek goddess of love.

In recent years it has acquired Starbucks, McDonald’s and other trappings of modern age prosperity.

One still needs to show an identity card to cross, and there are laws governing how much a visitor from one side can purchase on the other.

The same system remains in place at four other crossings linking the two sides.

Nonetheless, there is a certain symbolism about the opening of Ledra Street. “When you cross, you are in the heart of the town and not in the middle of nowhere,” said Patricia Hadjisotiriou, a senior government official.

To former Greek Cypriot President George Vassiliou, “It symbolizes the determination of the two communities to find a solution to the reunification of our island.”

But Marios Karoyian, the leader of the conservative DIKO Greek Cypriot party, feels “the effects of the Turkish invasion are still continuing.”

A statement issued by the European Party, another Greek Cypriot political grouping, said: “The Ledra crossing is neither free nor unhindered because people must pass under the gaze of the occupation army,” a reference to Turkish troops based in the north.

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