Leaders of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities have accepted a U.N. blueprint for reunifying Cyprus by May. The deal was reached after three days of hard bargaining at U.N. headquarters.

The deal reached Friday clears the way for further talks aimed at ending 30 years of Cyprus' division. The goal is to put a final settlement to referenda on both sides of the island, in time for a united Cyprus to join the European Union May 1.

Agreement came on the fourth day of three-party talks involving Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

After three days of deadlock, Mr. Annan presented the rival leaders with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal Friday, and both sides immediately accepted.

A beaming Mr. Annan announced the result, calling it a very good day for Cyprus.

"I am pleased to announce that the parties have committed to negotiating in good faith on the basis of my plan to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem through separate and simultaneous referenda before May 1, 2004," he said.

Mr. Annan said the talks will continue February 19 in Cyprus, with his representative, Alvaro de Soto, acting as mediator. If no agreement is reached there, the negotiators would be brought back to New York for a final session that would include the motherlands, Greece and Turkey. If there is still no result, Mr. Annan reserves the right to fill in the blanks on a final document that would be put to a public vote in April.

"As a final resort, in the event of a continuing and persistent deadlock, the parties have invited me to use my discretion to finalize the text to be submitted to referenda on the basis of my plan," he explained.

After the grueling negotiations, leaders of the two Cypriot communities expressed hope for success of the next round of talks. But as he left, the Greek Cypriot president, Mr. Papadopoulos, summed up the feelings on both sides, saying it is far too early to predict the outcome.

"There have been so many false hopes in the past. I wouldn't like to make a prediction," he said.

If the negotiating process breaks down at any stage over the next two months, only the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot state would join the EU. That would further deepen Turkish Cyprus's isolation.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded and occupied the northern third of the island to counter a short-lived coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists with backing from Athens. Turkey is the only country that recognizes the Turkish Cypriot entity.

The United Nations has maintained a peacekeeping mission along Cyprus' so-called Green Line for nearly 30 years.