Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis is making a historic visit to Turkey. It is the first time in 49 years that a prime minister of Greece has made an official visit to Turkey. The two countries have been at the brink of war several times over the last three decades. But as Dorian Jones reports for VOA from Istanbul, the visit is being viewed as an important step in improving relations.

After talks that ran an hour longer than scheduled, Mr. Karamanlis and his Turkish counterpart RecepTayyip Erdogan appeared in front of the media smiling. Mr. Erdogan stressed the importance of the visit and claimed a new era in bi-lateral relations has begun.

He said this year will offer new opportunities for relations between the two countries and that he looks forward to cooperation in military and economic affairs, trade and culture.

Mr. Erdogan said the two leaders would work to turn the Aegean between them into a sea of peace. They also committed themselves to work to reunite the divided island of Cyprus, but said those efforts were on hold until after upcoming elections on the Greek Cypriot side of the island.

Mr. Karamanlis voiced his support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

He said Turkey must be allowed to join the European Union when it has delivered on all the requirements for membership. One of the most important is the fair treatment of its minorities.

The Greek prime minister said Turkey must recognize the full rights of its Greek Orthodox minority. He stressed the importance of re-opening an Orthodox theological school in Istanbul.

Mr. Erdogan said solutions are being worked on and raised his government's own concern about Greece's treatment of its Turkish minority.

Little progress on the issues is expected during this initial visit. But Turkish political commentator Murat Yetkin says that as the last visit of a Greek prime minister was in 1959, this visit is of major importance.

"Oh, it is very significant after 49 years," said Murat Yetkin. "To me it shows breaking of some taboos in Greek politics. It's a very important indication the rapprochement between Turkey and Greece is on the rise."

The visit is also focusing on areas of cooperation especially growing bilateral trade. A gas pipeline was recently opened between the two countries.

During his three-day visit, Mr. Karamanlis is expected to participate in an economic forum in Istanbul. Deepening trade ties are seen as key to helping overcome animosities between the two countries. But observers warn that until fundamental issues are resolved, underlying tensions will remain.