Cyprus amends controversial bill on decades-old vote

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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (C) speaks as Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci (L) and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades (R) listen on during a press conference following Cyprus peace talks in Geneva on January 12, 2017

Greek Cypriot lawmakers voted Friday to overturn a controversial bill calling on schools to mark a decades-old vote on union with Greece, after peace talks with Turkish Cypriots broke down over the law.

UN-backed negotiations aimed at reuniting the divided island came to a standstill in February in a row over Greek Cypriot schools marking the anniversary of the unofficial 1950 referendum supporting "Enosis", or union with Greece.

Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci told his Greek Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades this week that he was ready to restart the talks provided the Enosis bill was revoked.

Akinci welcomed Friday's decision to amend the bill, and confirmed he would be taking part in the talks from Tuesday.

"In the talks that start on April 11, we must make a new start and work to create a new structure for a lasting peace on our island," he said.

"We do not have much time. We are at a crossroads. I hope that all the interested parties will take this into account."

Following a heated parliamentary debate, an amended bill was passed on Friday by 30 votes to 20.

The bill was put forward by Anastasiades's ruling conservative Disy party and backed by the opposition communist Akel.

In the original vote, Disy MPs abstained, allowing the bill to pass after it was proposed by the far-right Elam.

A few dozen Elam supporters demonstrated outside parliament on Friday urging lawmakers not to back down with a banner saying "Disy-Akel are murdering history".

Akinci and Anastasiades have been engaged in fragile peace talks since May 2015 that observers saw as the best chance in years to reunify the island.

Since the bill passed, a climate of trust between the sides has deteriorated, with each blaming the other for the deadlock.

Much of the progress in recent talks was based on the strong personal rapport between the two leaders.

The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking Enosis.

After a failed referendum on a UN peace plan in 2004, the Cyprus republic now headed by Anastasiades joined the European Union with the island still divided.

The breakaway state in the Turkish-held north headed by Akinci is recognised only by Turkey.