British FM to visit Talat in north Cyprus?

ANKARA (AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is to meet Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat in the Turkish-occupied north of the divided island later this month, a spokeswoman for Talat told AFP yesterday. In a move likely to irritate the island’s internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government, the January 25 meeting is to take place at Talat’s official residence in the northern sector of divided Nicosia, the spokeswoman added. A Turkish diplomat told AFP the visit had yet to be finalized and it was only «probable» that Straw would travel to the island on January 24 after talks in Ankara with his counterpart Abdullah Gul. A Greek-Cypriot official insisted there was «no fixed program yet» for Straw’s trip and said he had «no information» on any meeting with Talat. Lower-level British officials have met Turkish-Cypriot leaders in the past, most recently former junior foreign minister Denis MacShane. But the circumstances of the visits have always been highly sensitive for the Cyprus government which is implacably opposed to any upgrading of the northern regime’s international status. Only Ankara recognizes the regime in the north which Turkish-Cypriot leaders established in 1983, nine years after Turkish troops occupied the island’s northern third in response to a Greek-Cypriot coup aimed at union with Greece. «Everyone is aware that certain preconditions on meetings with some Turkish-Cypriot community leaders have been put before the [EU] Council of Ministers; the same applies to Mr Straw,» Cyprus Foreign Minister George Iacovou told reporters. «There are no additional terms for Mr Straw.» Iacovou insisted the dates of the visit were still being discussed between the British and Cypriot governments. «We know two or three dates that suit Mr Straw and we are also trying to find a date that suits the government. I hope that we find it.» For the Cyprus government, the issue is not so much whether Straw meets Talat, but where and with what protocol. The government has no objection to foreign dignitaries meeting Talat as leader of his own community, but a reception at his official residence would likely ruffle feathers as it might imply some sort of recognition of his status as leader of the Turkish Cypriots. Talat won plaudits from the international community in 2004 by leading his community to approve a UN reunification plan for the island, which was rejected by Greek-Cypriot voters at the behest of the government of President Tassos Papadopoulos. Former colonial power Britain has since been pushing for the Turkish Cypriots to be rewarded for their yes vote with a package of aid and trade, but the proposals have run into legal problems in the face of the Cyprus government’s opposition.

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