UN-backed peace talks in balance as Cyprus rivals bicker

Charlie Charalambous
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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (centre) is flanked by Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci (left) and Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades during a press conference in Geneva, on January 12, 2017

The future of UN-backed Cyprus reunification talks hung in the balance on Friday as rival Cypriot leaders rowed over who was at fault for walking out of their negotiations.

Although UN envoy Espen Barth Eide has voiced confidence that a meeting next Thursday will go ahead as scheduled, the climate of trust between the sides has deteriorated.

Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Mustafa Akinci on Friday engaged in a war of words over the previous day's walkout.

The peace talks between the rival leaders on long-divided Cyprus broke up in acrimony over a 1950 referendum.

Eide said it was Akinci who stormed off but the Turkish Cypriot leader on Friday accused the UN diplomat of "hiding half of the truth".

"Eide should not come to the situation of having the trust towards him questioned by saying one half of the truth and hiding the other," Akinci told reporters.

He insists that Anastasiades left the room first, slamming the door behind him.

Anastasiades has denied this and his spokesman squarely blamed Akinci, in what he branded a "pre-determined act".

When asked about the next scheduled meeting, Akinci suggested there were more serious issues at stake.

"Our expectation is for the climate of trust, which had been shaken, to be fixed. Some steps should be taken on this issue," he said.

With feelings running high, Anastasiades issued his own statement to try to set the record straight.

"I do not wish, in any way, to engage in an unnecessary blame game, especially after the public explanation" by the UN envoy, said the Greek Cypriot leader.

"I call on the Turkish Cypriot leader to be present at the next meeting so that through a constructive dialogue those conditions can be created that will allow us to be optimistic for a positive outcome."

- Tensions soar -

Tensions have soared over the February 10 approval by the Greek Cypriot parliament for schools in the south to mark the 1950 referendum on "Enosis," or union with Greece.

The unofficial referendum -- staged before Cyprus won independence from colonial ruler Britain -- overwhelmingly approved Enosis but had no legal value.

Almost 96 percent of the majority Greek Cypriots signed up in favour of union with "motherland" Greece in the poll held in churches and coffee shops, according to its organisers, the Cyprus Greek Orthodox Church.

The amendment to schools legislation, sponsored by the far-right ELAM party, essentially calls for secondary students to mark the anniversary by learning about the referendum and the Enosis cause.

Thursday's Akinci-Anastasiades meeting was their first since the vote in parliament, with the Greek Cypriot leader ruling out Akinci's request to cancel the decision.

The two sides have been engaged in fragile peace talks since May 2015 that observers have seen as the best chance in years to reunify the island.

In January, the United Nations hosted talks in Geneva bringing both sides together for the first time with the three "guarantor powers": Britain, Greece and Turkey.

Much of the progress until now has been based on the strong personal rapport between Anastasiades and Akinci, leader of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

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

After a failed peace referendum on a UN blueprint in 2004, the Cyprus Republic now headed by President Anastasiades joined the European Union as a divided country, while the Turkish-held north remains recognised only by Turkey.