Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Wednesday, 3 September 2008 12:46 UK

Cyprus rivals begin peace talks

Mehmet Ali Talat (l) and Demetris Christofias
Mehmet Ali Talat (l) and Demetris Christofias are both seen as moderates

Rival leaders of the divided island of Cyprus are meeting to launch negotiations aimed at reunifying the island after 34 years of division.

Cyprus President Demetris Christofias and rival Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat met at a compound in Nicosia.

Analysts say the talks have a real chance of resolving the dispute, which threatens Turkey's EU membership hopes.

The island has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974, triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup in Nicosia.

Turkey has 35,000 troops in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north.

'Historic day'

"We must, at long last, put an end to the suffering of our people and reunite our country," Mr Christofias told reporters as he headed for the meeting, held in an abandoned airport compound on the outskirts of the divided capital.

Cyprus map

Mr Talat said their aim was to make "a divided island a common place where two nations are living".

"Ankara is, you know, supporting a solution. That is why after four years of stalemate we are here - we are in favour of a solution. We are confident that we will succeed in concluding [a] comprehensive agreement," he said.

Mr Christofias added: "There is a common will and a common desire and a common effort to achieve this target".

The last attempt at a negotiated solution - in 2004 - collapsed when Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of a UN settlement plan which was rejected by Greek Cypriot voters.

As a result, Cyprus joined the European Union that year as a divided island with Turkish Cypriots denied the bloc's membership benefits.

Challenges ahead

The UN secretary general's special envoy to the talks, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, said "significant progress" had been made to create a solid foundation for negotiations.

Mr Christofias and Mr Talat - both seen as moderates - have met five times so far this year.

They will continue to meet at least once a week, though the UN has warned that talks should not continue indefinitely without concrete progress being made.

Mr Downer said of the process: "There have been difficult moments over the past months and there will likely be further difficulties and challenges ahead.

"At the same time, the Cyprus problem is not insurmountable and the negotiations which begin today can and must have a successful outcome."

The meeting is scheduled to address matters of procedure, with negotiations on more substantive - and difficult - issues due to begin on 11 September.

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