By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA (Reuters) - Leaders of ethnically split Cyprus agreed on Monday to restart peace talks on May 15, a U.N. envoy said on Monday, offering fresh hope of healing one of Europe's most enduring frozen conflicts.
Espen Barth Eide was speaking to media after a meeting between Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci. It was their first encounter since Akinci, a moderate leftist, swept to victory in a Turkish Cypriot leadership election on April 26.
"They agreed it was important to use the momentum created and opportunity to move forward without delay," Eide told journalists outside a landmark hotel straddling a 'buffer zone' that has split the capital Nicosia for decades.
Once catering to Hollywood royalty, the Ledra Palace Hotel is now a shabby shadow of its former self, and is used as living quarters for British peacekeepers.
The division of Cyprus has defied attempts by generations of diplomats to find a settlement. The east Mediterranean island has been divided since the Turkish army invaded in 1974 in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup aimed at union with Greece.
The seeds of division had been sown at least a decade earlier, when power-sharing crumbled into violence just three years after independence from Britain.
Eide said the two leaders had agreed to meet on May 15 to have a "general exchange of views" and discuss the modalities and structure of negotiations.
"This is a unique opportunity, an opportunity to be grasped," said Eide, a former Norwegian foreign minister.
Both sides officially agree in principle that the island should be united under a two-state federal umbrella, but past negotiations have foundered on issues such as the powers of a central government and the residency and property rights of thousands of internally displaced people.
The last major peace push collapsed in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a reunification blueprint accepted by the Turkish Cypriots.
Northern Cyprus is financially and militarily supported by Turkey, the only country which recognises it as a separate state. The Greek Cypriot government, which in practice controls only the south, represents the whole island in the European Union.
(Reporting By Michele Kambas; Editing by Ralph Boulton)