Leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus met here Thursday for the first time in nearly a decade and began talks on a first-stage agreement to end the 21-year division of their Mediterranean island.
Cyprus' President Spyros Kyprianou, representing the island's Greeks, and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash shook hands for photographers before their closed-door conversations began. Denktash quipped: "This is the handshake of the century."
After the first of their two sessions Thursday, a spokesman for Kyprianou said that the meetings could continue until Sunday. He called the process a "negotiating session, not a signing ceremony."
On Wednesday, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, Sukru Elekdag, had hailed the U.N. conversations as a breakthrough and predicted that an agreement in principle might be signed as early as Thursday, leaving only details to be concluded by working groups later.
Andreas Christophides, a spokesman for the Kyprianou government, told reporters that "much progress" toward a Cyprus solution had been made in preliminary talks here last year.
"We have come here (the United Nations) with good will and good faith to achieve a framework for a solution," Christophides said.
Neither Kyprianou nor Denktash--who has led the Turkish minority in Cyprus since 1963 and has headed a separate but unrecognized Turkish Cypriot state in the northern part of the Mediterranean island ever since Turkish troops landed there in 1974--made any comment after their two sessions Thursday.
Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who initiated indirect talks between the two sides five months ago, welcomed Kyprianou and Denktash to the talks, saying:
"Difficulties remain to be overcome. The progress made (so far) has been of such importance that it would be tragic to stop now."
The present talks owe much to the determination of Perez de Cuellar, who spent years as the U.N. special representative for Cyprus before he became secretary general.
Christophides gave the Greek views at a briefing for reporters after the first session Thursday; there was no official spokesman present for the Turkish side. However, a Turkish source said that Kyprianou had emphasized that he wants to review every subject already agreed upon in the preliminary talks.
Kyprianou also asserted, the Turkish source said, that Turkish troops must leave Cyprus before a final agreement can be signed.