Turkey's foreign minister says his country will make a strong push to end the decades-long dispute over Cyprus, before the island joins the European Union next May. But the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, insisted that resolving the Cyprus dispute should not be a precondition for Turkey's membership in the European Union.

The comments follow a European Commission report assessing progress toward fulfilling EU criteria for full membership by Turkey and 10 nations scheduled to join next May.

The report praised a wide range of reforms adopted by Turkey's year-old government in recent months. But it also noted that the sole predominantly Muslim EU applicant country has fallen far short of implementing many of the changes approved by its parliament. The European Commission added that the issue of Cyprus remains an obstacle to Turkey's accession.

Turkey filed its formal application for membership in the European Union in 1987. It is the only EU applicant to not have launched membership negotiations.

Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist, says joining the EU remains his government's top priority.

The parliament, where Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party commands a firm majority, has pushed through a wide range of laws that are intended to raise the country's democracy to Western standards. Among them are measures that enable the country's 14 million ethnic Kurds to broadcast in the Kurdish language and to teach it as a second language in private schools.

But Foreign Minister Gul acknowledged that problems remain in implementing such changes.

Although the foreign minister said Turkey plans to launch a new effort on Cyprus, Turkish officials have expressed anger over the EU decision to link Turkey's membership to progress on the Cyprus issue. Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash is opposed to the latest U.N. plan, and blocked the re-unification of the island this year.

The director of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, told VOA that linking Turkey's EU membership to the Cyprus issue is counterproductive.

"Turkey is making very significant progress towards meeting the human rights criteria that the European Union has established and I am hopeful that come December 2004, when its time for the European Union to determine whether a date for membership negotiations is set or not, I hope by that point Turkey will have met the human rights criteria," he said. "If that happens it would be a disaster for the European Union to introduce new criteria and important as the Cyprus dispute is, that was not part of the Copenhagen criteria and it would harm the very important contribution that the European Union is making towards human rights evolution in Turkey."

EU officials disagree with such views. They believe that added pressure will encourage Turkey to accept the latest U.N.-sponsored peace plan to re-unite Cyprus.

The island has been partitioned between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since 1974.

That is when Turkish troops seized control of the northern part of the island, following an attempt by ultra-nationalist Greek Cypriots to annex Cyprus to Greece. About 30,000 Turkish troops de-deployed on the island would have to be withdrawn if the U.N. peace plan were accepted.