June 1, 2016 / 3:08 PM / 2 years ago

Turkish Cypriot leader expects reunification talks to resume soon

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said on Wednesday he expected Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to soon propose a return to United Nations-brokered peace negotiations after he skipped talks to reunite the long-divided island last week.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (L) and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci shake hands during a visit in the Turkish-administered northern part of Cyprus, June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

The two men have raised hopes of a breakthrough this year on the issue of reuniting Cyprus, a European Union member state but divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since Turkey invaded in 1974.

Anastasiades visited Istanbul last week to attend the U.N. World Humanitarian Summit - the first time a Greek Cypriot leader traveled to Turkey in half a century. Turkey does not recognize Anastasiades’ government, but the rest of the world considers it the sole authority for the whole island.

However, the visit was marred when Anastasiades canceled a meeting with Akinci and the U.N.’s special envoy to Cyprus to protest against Akinci’s attendance as a head of state at a dinner hosted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during the international summit.

Akinci described Anastasiades’ move as “an unnecessary, exaggerated reaction” during a news conference in the divided Cypriot capital of Nicosia on Wednesday with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

“Our expectation now is that Mr Anastasiades will establish the necessary dialogue for a new meeting date, preferably not too late, with both the United Nations and with us,” Akinci said, dismissing a suggestion that the snub had amounted to a “crisis”, in comments aired live by Turkish state TV.

Anastasiades protested against Akinci’s attendance because it could have signaled international acceptance of him as an equal counterpart. The two leaders are in talks to reunite Cyprus as leaders of their respective communities, and Cyprus is sensitive to perceived attempts to hold them in equal standing.

It was the first serious dispute in the reunification talks that resumed a year ago and have offered the best chance in more than a decade to end the island’s bitter division.

Akinci reiterated the aim of both sides to reach a deal before the end of 2016.

The sense of urgency is due in part to huge natural gas finds offshore in recent years that become commercially viable if Cyprus can export the fuel to markets through Turkey.

Turkey still keeps some 30,000 troops in the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north. It invaded the island in 1974 in response to a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup backed by the military junta then ruling Greece.

Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Gareth Jones

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