UN says first round of Cyprus talks ‘positive’

A UN envoy for ethnically split Cyprus said talks on Sunday to overcome a logjam in peace negotiations were «positive» but said it was up to the rival sides to find common ground in the decades-old conflict.

The United Nations is trying to revive flagging peace talks with two-day meeting at a secluded farm in Manhasset outside New York to resolve a dispute harming Turkey’s EU entry bid and energy projects in the eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus’s reunification process has stumbled on complex issues such as future co-governance under a federal system, one of the issues of the two-day meeting that started on Sunday.

United Nations officials said discussions were productive and positive, and «appropriately vigorous.”

“The UN is pleased with the way it’s going,» said Alexander Downer, a former Australian foreign minister who has been overseeing on-island peace talks for three years.

Cyprus, with a combined population of about 1 million people, was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. The conflict, a source of tension between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, is thrown into sharper focus by Ankara’s attempts to join the European Union and a simmering dispute over Mediterranean hydrocarbon riches.

Trading the normal venue of peace talks from an abandoned airport compound on the scorchingly hot island to a tranquil woodlands retreat blanketed by snow on Long Island, the United Nations is hoping the consultations will break the logjam and clear a way forward in the long-running conflict.

“We have said all along that we won’t be arbitrators or mediators in this process, but we are happy to be as helpful as possibly as can be,» said Downer.

“At the end of the day, (and) where the two sides have to make convergences, the UN cant impose anything on them and we have no intention of doing so.”

UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, together with Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu, made a brief joint appearance on Sunday but had no comments. Downer said Ban planned to spend about six hours with the leaders on Monday.

When he called the meeting in July, Ban had hoped to report agreement on outstanding issues. That has not materialized but he was likely to give the two sides more time to resolve differences, diplomats said.

Both communities now run their affairs – Greek Cypriots as the official representatives of the whole of Cyprus in the EU and Turkish Cypriots, whose enclave is not internationally recognized.

Diplomats say they want a deal by the time Cyprus assumes the EU presidency in July 2012, worried that Turkey will sever already troubled ties altogether with the bloc. Ankara does not have diplomatic relations with the Greek Cypriot government.

Ankara also opposes attempts by Greek Cypriots to drill for gas south of the island, saying it risks derailing the peace process. US based Noble Energy started drilling for natural gas south of Cyprus in September and Cypriot officials say there are encouraging indications of large gas deposits.

The sides agree in principle on reunifying the island as a two-zone federation with a strong central government, but on little else. There are deep-rooted disputes on governance, particularly focused on how future leaders will be elected and by whom, property rights of thousands of internally displaced people and redrawing territorial boundaries between the two sides. [Reuters]

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