The top diplomats from Britain, Greece and Turkey on Thursday joined U.N.-hosted talks aiming to reunify long-divided Cyprus, as the negotiators tackle crucial security issues for the east Mediterranean island where tens of thousands of Turkish troops are stationed in the breakaway north.
The arrival of Foreign Ministers Boris Johnson of Britain, Nikos Kotzias of Greece and Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey means years of efforts to reunify Cyprus have reached high-level diplomacy, tackling security issues for the first time. Security is pivotal to any deal to end the 43-year split because it strikes at the heart of fears among both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The ministers were hoping to make progress that could pave the way for their prime ministers to join, a possible signal that a wide-ranging accord also involving issues like governance, property and territory could be on tap. Britain is a former colonial overseer in Cyprus, and today operates two military bases on the island.
"The prime minister will travel to Geneva if there are signs that a resolution is achievable," Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told reporters in Athens, referring to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. A spokesman for Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said he, too, was waiting for signs of progress from the foreign ministers.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres were also participating in the talks. Guterres was expected to speak to reporters later Thursday.
Turkey stationed some 35,000 troops in the breakaway north following the 1974 coup by Greek Cypriots hoping to unify Cyprus with Greece. The minority Turkish Cypriots see Turkey's military might as their sole insurance against any Greek Cypriot hostility if a peace deal unravels, and insist on keeping the troops as part of a final accord.
Greek Cypriots consider a Turkish troop presence as a threat and an instrument of Ankara's influence on the island. They insist that Turkey, which is not a European Union member state, should neither keep troops on the island nor have the right to intervene militarily in Cyprus, which is part of the 28-country EU bloc.
Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anasastaides and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have been leading a string of delicate, closed-door meetings in Geneva since Monday to iron out a host of outstanding issues. U.N. envoy for Cyprus Espen Barth Eide said Wednesday that progress has been made on a number of fronts, but that work remained.
The Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities exchanged maps Wednesday outlining the zones that each community would control in a hoped-for federation, before the maps were placed in U.N. vault for safekeeping — a sign of the delicate nature of the proposals to both sides.
Neither Anasastaides nor Akinci have spoken publicly to reporters about the talks since Monday.