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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 11:30 GMT
Eyewitness: On the Green Line
Mixed choir in Cyprus during rehearsal
The Greek-Turkish choir hopes to foster ethnic harmony

In a house in the village of Pyla, in the United Nations buffer zone which cuts across the island of Cyprus, Greek and Turkish Cypriots greet each other like long lost friends.

This is one of the few places where peace activists from the two communities can meet.

They have formed a choir which they hope will help encourage ethnic harmony.

Things are much better now, we salute each other and we even say hello

Turkish Cypriot official Ahmet Sakilli

"We build a base," says Lena Mexelebi, the Greek Cypriot conductor. "And we just help things go positively. We don't give solutions, we are not..."

"Politicians," says her Turkish counterpart Caner Ilgar.

But now even the politicians have agreed to talk.

The veteran leaders of the two communities on Cyprus are embarking on what the United Nations hopes will be several months of talks.

The aim by mid-summer is a settlement of one of the most intractable disputes in the world.

The Greek Cypriot President Glafkos Clerides is recognised internationally as the legitimate ruler of the whole island.

UN soldiers in Cyprus
UN soldiers keep a watchful eye over both communities

But the Turkish Cypriots in the north, led by Rauf Denktash, have declared independence, supported by 30,000 troops from mainland Turkey.

Since 1974, the United Nations has had to keep the two sides apart.

Pyla is the only mixed community in the buffer zone, and it has had its share of problems.

There are plenty of people who don't share the passion for contacts between the two communities.

The Greek cafe is on one side of the village square, and the Turkish coffee house on the other.

They don't mix much, and it had taken four years of negotiations for local Greek and Turkish Cypriot representatives to agree on a plan to build speed bumps to slow down the traffic on the main road.

The main Turkish official in the village, Ahmet Sakilli, admits that he visited the Greek café for the first time just a few weeks ago.

"Things are much better now, we salute each other and we even say hello," he said.

Lingering doubts

Just across the square, the Greek Cypriots playing cards in the sun agree that the political thaw, which has seen Mr Clerides and Mr Denktash visit each other for the first time in a generation, has made life in the village a little easier.

But there are still grave doubts about whether Cyprus can reach a solution without a little help from its friends.

"They need help from someone like Bush say, or the British Government," says Spirou Kiriagos.

"If those two countries are moving things a bit, they can find a good solution for Cyprus."

The consensus on both sides of the square is that the main impetus for the renewed talks has been the Greek Cypriot Government's application for membership of the European Union.

It is likely to be approved at the end of this year, and for the first time in a generation that sets a real deadline.

Greek Cypriot
The shadows from the past hang over the island

But no one expects it to be easy. In both communities, there is a huge legacy of bitterness.

Greek Cypriot women dressed in black come to the checkpoint which divides north from south every Saturday - still haunted by the past. Mothers want to know what happened to sons who disappeared 28 years ago.

Just a short distance across the barbed wire, the Turkish Cypriots have set up a "Museum of Barbarism" in a house where a Turkish Cypriot family was killed in the early 1960s.

Nationalists feed off the painful memories of a period when inter-communal violence left thousands dead or missing.

It makes the search for a permanent settlement all the more difficult.

Abandoned villages

And so the United Nations is still here - keeping a watchful eye on Turkish soldiers in the north, and on the Greek Cypriot national guard.

UN troops patrol the buffer zone every day, through abandoned villages which are slowly collapsing.

It is not a place which inspires much optimism.

For all the talk of a solution in six months, there is little sign that political positions on either side have changed.

The Greek Cypriots insist that the basis for a solution must be a bi-communal federal state.

The Turkish Cypriots are still pushing for a much looser confederation of two sovereign states.

It is complicated, and neither side is giving much away before the talks begin in earnest.

Turkish cafe in the village of Pyla in Cyprus
Even in mixed Pyla, Turks and Greeks frequent different cafes

But if Cyprus does join the EU without a settlement in place, things are likely to get worse.

In the eyes of the world, Turkish troops in the north would then be occupying part of the European Union.

That is why international pressure for a settlement is growing.

No-one wants to have to deal with an even greater mess.

Critical year

If Cyprus's application is delayed in any way, Greece has threatened to hold up the entire EU enlargement process.

On the other hand if Cyprus is accepted as a member of the European Union while the island remains divided, Turkey has threatened to annex the north altogether.

On one thing everyone agrees - the EU application has changed the dynamics of a conflict which often seems frozen in time.

This will be a critical year. But if the talks are to succeed both sides will have to compromise, and that will be a tough task on an island where history casts such a long shadow.

The BBC's Chris Morris
"An attempt to bridge a quarter of a century divide"
See also:

08 Jan 02 | Europe
Turkey foresees Cyprus settlement
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