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UN-Sponsored Cyprus Talks Open in Switzerland - 2004-03-24

United Nations mediated talks aimed at ending the decades-long dispute over the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus have opened at the Swiss lakeside resort of Buergenstock. Negotiators hope to reach a reunification deal before Cyprus enters the European Union on May 1.

Turkish government officials and Turkish Cypriots reportedly presented U.N. Officials with a list of changes they want in the plan currently on the table. A Greek Cypriot Official said his side had rejected the changes. He said the Greek Cypriots were approaching these talks with goodwill. He accused the Turkish Cypriots of clinging to their positions, which, he said, went outside the U.N. brokered plan.

The U.N. plan calls for a loose confederation splitting Cyprus into two ethnic zones. One of the main difficulties concerns the return of some 180,000 Greek Cypriots who fled the northern part of the island when Turkey invaded the country in 1974. The U.N. plan allows only half that number to return. But the Turkish Cypriots say even that is too much.

The United Nations has invited the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers to join the talks in an effort to pressure the Cypriots into reaching an agreement. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has invited the prime ministers of both countries to join him at the Swiss negotiations on Sunday. A U.N. Spokesman said Mr. Annan probably will have to resolve the remaining differences between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots when he arrives.

The U.N. Secretary-General is eager to conclude a peace deal that has eluded negotiators for 30 years. The reunification plan must be put to separate referenda in the two communities on April 20. If it is accepted by both sides, Cyprus will join the European Union as one country on May 1. If it is rejected, only the Greek part of the island will become a member. Recent polls indicate that the plan, as it now stands, will be defeated by both communities.

The Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, who opposes the plan, is boycotting the meeting.