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Turkey, EU Agree to Start Historic Membership Talks

Turkey said it had reached agreement with the European Union to open membership talks. The announcement by Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul came after nearly 24 hours of tortuous negotiations between the Ankara government and EU foreign ministers gathered in Luxembourg.

Emerging from consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top leaders, Foreign Minister Gul confirmed that agreement with the EU had finally been reached. Mr. Gul's brief comments came as he made his way to the airport to fly to Luxembourg. Mr. Gul is expected to formally launch accession negotiations with the EU after more than four decades of waiting at Europe's door.

The deal almost fell through Monday as Austria kept up its opposition to full membership for predominantly Muslim Turkey. Some 80 percent of Austrians are against Turkey's inclusion in the European bloc. Its fears of the large and predominantly Muslim nation of 70 million is shared by many Europeans.

The first signs of a breakthrough came when Austria, under heavy pressure from Britain, dropped its demands for a privileged partnership, a watered-down form of membership for Turkey.

Turkey has rejected anything short of full membership. But remaining differences over Cyprus, which remains unrecognized by Turkey, threatened to block the deal.

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has been resisting calls to allow Cyprus to join the military alliance. Its stance is backed by the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reassured Turkey Monday that it would continue to stand by the Ankara government on the Cyprus issue. The Mediterranean island has remained divided ever since Turkish troops invaded the Turkish populated north of Cyprus in 1974 in response to efforts by Greek Cypriot ultra-nationalists to join the island with mainland Greece.

The Greek Cypriots rejected the latest United Nations peace plan to reunite the island. It was permitted to join the EU last year and now has the power to veto Turkey's membership. Turkey says it will not recognize Cyprus until a final settlement endorsed by the island's minority Turks is reached.