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US vows to push for Cyprus accord before key EU date

ATHENS -- The United States pledged yesterday to press Greek and Turkish Cypriots to accept a reunification deal before the island joins the European Union on May 1, injecting new momentum into the stalled peace process.

Voicing optimism on an issue that has bedeviled peacemakers for decades, Secretary of State Colin Powell said a settlement to end the island's 30-year division was near.

"I think it is time for all of us to put pressure on all sides to get a resolution to this difficult situation," Powell said in Washington, after meeting with Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul. "It has gone on for so long, and I think we are getting close to a solution."

Powell spoke one day after President Bush held talks in the Oval Office with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During that meeting, Erdogan vowed that Ankara was committed to a Cyprus solution after what appears to be a softening of stance by the Turkish army over the "sacred" national issue.

If the Mediterranean island is not reunited by May 1, only the majority Greek population in the south will enter the newly enlarged EU. The Turks in the economically deprived breakaway north will be left out, unable to benefit from any of the EU's benefits or laws -- a prospect that would cement Cyprus's ethnic divide.

"There is a moment of opportunity here that we hope to seize and have referendums and resolve outstanding issues, and hopefully get it all done by May 1," Powell said.

The two communities have lived on either side of a 120-mile long, UN-patrolled cease-fire line since an Athens-backed coup prompted the Turkish army to invade Cyprus in 1974. UN-brokered talks aimed at reuniting them in two largely autonomous component states collapsed 10 months ago.

A peace plan put forward by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, widely seen as the best deal yet, was rejected by the veteran Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash on the grounds that it would require the minority to surrender too much territory. Declaring the plan "dead," Denktash insisted that his statelet -- acknowledged only by Ankara, its main military and economic sponsor -- be given international recognition first.

But in a further sign of a possible breakthrough, Annan said yesterday he would "try and get these negotiations concluded as soon as possible." A deal, however, would need all sides to "show the will and determination to . . . engage seriously," he told reporters during a visit to EU headquarters in Brussels. Chances of reunification have risen since Turkish Cypriots narrowly elected a party that favors a solution to the impasse in parliamentary polls last month. Turkey has also come under increasing pressure to persuade Turkish Cypriots to resume negotiations.

Although Ankara's own EU aspirations are not technically linked to the fate of the island, Brussels has warned that the lack of a Cyprus settlement could jeopardize its chances of joining the EU. After moving ahead with bold domestic reforms in a bid to meet the bloc's stringent accession criteria, Turkey hopes to be given a start date for membership talks this December. With some 35,000 Turkish troops permanently stationed on Cyprus, a failure to resolve the problem would put Turkey in the embarrassing position of occupying EU territory.

In the 30 years since the Turks seized the island's northern third, no other issue has provoked as many crises between NATO members Greece and Turkey.

"It is a military trip-wire in a region that is vital to US interests with the war on terror," said John Sitilides, who heads the Western Policy Center in Washington, which specializes in southeastern Europe.

US officials and analysts also point out that a settlement would further anchor Turkey -- NATO's only Muslim state -- to the West at a crucial time, as the US-led coalition attempts to rebuild Iraq. "The US wants to showcase Turkey as a model secular Muslim democracy; that's its long-term strategy," Sitilides said. "Its near-term tactic is to anchor Turkey to the EU beginning with a negotiating date. Cyprus is the single biggest obstacle to that happening." Erdogan is scheduled to speak this evening at Harvard's Kennedy School as part of a public forum.

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