NICOSIA, Cyprus - Rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders said yesterday they will start historic reunification talks Sept. 3, ending years of deadlock and sparking hope that the island's 34-year division could finally end.
President Dimitris Christofias, who is Greek Cypriot, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat agreed on the date after meeting in the buffer zone dividing the two communities.
"The aim of the fully fledged negotiations is to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem which will safeguard fundamental and legitimate rights and interests of Greek and Turkish Cypriots," the two said in a joint statement read by Taye-Brook Zerihoun, the United Nations' top official on the island.
Any agreement that Christofias and Talat might reach in the talks will be put to simultaneous referendums on both sides of the island, the statement said.
Cyprus has been divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a short-lived coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece.
Diplomats since then have tried and failed to resolve the island's division. The last direct high-level negotiations ended in 2004 after Greek Cypriots voted to reject a UN reunification plan that Turkish Cypriots accepted.
During their meeting yesterday, Talat and Christofias agreed to set up a hotline between their two offices and immediately begin working together to prevent wildfires, conserve scarce water, restore cultural monuments, and share information on crime.
Christofias said he and Talat had taken another positive step forward. "It is a matter of both sides adopting a constructive stance based on basic principles and goodwill to reach a settlement," Christofias said.
He said the talks would have no timetables or third-party arbitration - structures he faulted for contributing to previous failed talks. Christofias swept into power in February, ousting the hard-line incumbent on a pro-reunification ticket, and immediately sought to restart moribund talks with Talat.
To underscore their mutual commitment to peace, they opened a north-south crossing point in the divided capital.