U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan left Cyprus Friday, after Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders promised to give him a final answer soon on his plan to reunite the divided island.
Many deadlines have come and gone in the Cyprus crisis, but after three days of delicate negotiations, Mr. Annan finally issued an ultimatum Friday to Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders.
He demanded that they meet him in The Hague on March 10, and end months of wavering over the U.N. deal to reunite Cyprus by formally declaring whether they are prepared to put the plan to their respective communities.
If their answer is yes, the plan will be put to people in the Turkish north and Greek south of the island in separate referenda on March 30.
And after an hour-long meeting Friday morning, Mr. Annan announced that Greek Cypriot President-elect Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash had agreed to go to The Hague.
Mr. Annan added that when the two leaders come to The Hague, he expects them to tell him whether they will sign a commitment for separate referenda to achieve a comprehensive Cyprus settlement.
The fact that both sides agreed to the Hague meeting has increased optimism that, after months of wrangling, a deal may at last be struck between the bitterly opposed sides.
But Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash immediately deflated the newfound mood of optimism. Although he said he would go to The Hague, he described it as "an invitation to say 'yes' or 'no' and why no," adding that the prospect of turning the whole question over to the people simply because their leaders were unable to agree was neither correct nor democratic.
Both sides have demanded substantial modifications to Mr. Annan's plan, which calls for a loose federation of two component states, linked by a weak central government along the Swiss canton model.
But Mr. Annan has made it clear that the third and latest version of his plan will be the last. He hopes that if the two sides hold referenda at the end of March, a positive vote would allow a reunified Cyprus to sign a deal on April 16, paving the way for the island's accession to the European Union in 2004.
If the U.N. deal collapses however, only the Greek side of the island will join the European Union, and the Turkish side will be excluded.