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NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cypriot leaders launched talks on Wednesday seen as the best chance in decades to reunite their divided island and end a conflict threatening Turkey's EU membership hopes.
Cypriot President Demetris Christofias, representing the Greek Cypriot community, and Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat, met in no man's land dividing their capital Nicosia, in what diplomats and analysts described as the first opportunity for a breakthrough in years.
"It is time to end the long-lingering Cyprus problem and to give the Cypriot people the better future they deserve," Christofias said. "We have a common will and a common desire."
Cyprus's partition is a headache for the European Union. Effectively represented in the bloc by its Greek Cypriots, the island has veto rights over the membership bid of Turkey, a key western ally in the Middle East.
Leftist leaders who call each other "comrade", Talat and newly-elected Christofias have little to do with the roots of the island's violent conflict, unlike some other negotiators.
"It is widely believed that if these two moderates can't solve it, nobody can," said Hubert Faustmann, a Cyprus-based analyst.
Divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup, the two sides have agreed to reunite as two ethnic communities largely living in separate areas and running their own affairs but with a strong central government to represent them abroad.
But they have not agreed on how this will be achieved. A key dispute is the unrecognised status of northern Cyprus, and how to reintegrate it in a federation.
Christofias's presidential election victory in February over Tassos Papadopoulos, who led Greek Cypriots in rejecting a U.N. reunification plan in 2004, marked a turning point in the dispute that has frustrated an army of mediators since 1974.
"We are confident we will succeed in concluding a comprehensive agreement as soon as possible, and hopefully this year," Talat told reporters after the meeting. "Of course Ankara is supporting the solution."
A Turkish foreign ministry official told Reuters Ankara welcomed the start of reunification talks and Turkey offered its full support to finding a solution.
"From the very beginning we have been supporting a solution to the Cyprus problem based on established U.N. parameters of bi-zonality, political equality and a partnership founded by two equal states," the official said.
Alexander Downer, the former Australian Foreign Minister appointed U.N. special envoy for Cyprus who was present at Wednesday's meeting, said it was a "historic" day.
"A settlement will be an inspiration for a troubled world," Downer told reporters, flanked by the two leaders.
When talks start in earnest next week, they will move to what were once the arrival and departure terminals of the island's main commercial airport. Bearing witness to past violence, the bullet-riddled shell of an old jet sits on a nearby runway overgrown with weeds.
A deal will also hinge on how it is promoted in the communities, which must approve it in simultaneous referendums, analysts said. A U.N. plan failed in 2004 when Greek Cypriots voted against it.
"The atmosphere on the ground is polarised. They will have to work hard to transfer the positive climate to the people," said Mete Hatay, an analyst at the PRIO peace institute.