NICOSIA (AFP)–British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw met Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat in the breakaway Turkish north despite angry protests by the Greek Cypriot community.
The visit coincided with Turkey’s announcement of a package of proposals to lift trade and transport restrictions in Cyprus in the hope that mutual gestures will help end the Mediterranean island’s three-decade division.
The Turkish plan "needs to be taken seriously," Straw said after separate talks with Talat and Foreign Minister George Iacovou–a Greek Cypriot whose internationally-recognized government has dismissed the proposals.
"I regard Cyprus as one of my highest priorities for 2006," said the first foreign secretary to visit Britain’s former colony in a decade.
The government was angered by Straw’s insistence on meeting with Talat at his offices in the northern sector of Nicosia–with President Tassos Papadopoulos warning that it would "poison" ties.
Greek Cypriots argue that such a meeting would grant some kind of official status to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state led by Talat–which is recognized only by Turkey.
But Straw denied that the meeting would "imply recognition of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)–nor an upgrading of our relations."
In reference to the Turkish plan–he said: "We’ve also got to make progress on lifting economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community… It’s in all our interests to bring the Turkish Cypriots closer to the European Union."
The only path to a settlement on Cyprus is "negotiation and compromise," Straw told reporters.
Talat hailed the visit by Straw while adding at a separate press conference it was "absolutely untrue that he has elevated us to a higher status by visiting me in my office.
"We extend our thanks to Straw. The conclusion that we draw from Straw’s visit is that he respects the Turkish Cypriot people and the leader they have elected," he said.
On the other side of the Green Line that separates the island–about 120 Greek Cypriot demonstrators rushed his motorcade as he arrived earlier for the meeting with Iacovou–jeering "Jack Straw go home" and "Shame on you Jack Straw."
Straw held talks for more than an hour with Iacovou–the only high-ranking Greek Cypriot politician available to meet the foreign secretary during his 24-hour visit.
"Despite weeks of us putting forward our concerns that the visit is an affront to our sensitivities and Cypriot Hellenism–our explanations went unheard," Papadopoulos said Tuesday.
Only Ankara recognizes the TRNC–declared in 1983–nine years after Turkish troops occupied the island’s northern third in response to a Greek Cypriot coup aimed at union with Greece.
Straw is due to hold talks in Ankara on Thursday with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Cyprus and Turkey’s bid to join the EU. He will then go on to Athens.
UN chief Kofi Annan has heralded Straw’s mission in the region–although the Cypriot government has dismissed the role of Britain–the former colonial power.
Under its plan unveiled Tuesday–Turkey would open its sea and air ports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes–a measure Ankara is already under pressure to adopt as part of customs union arrangemen’s with the EU.
The Greek Cypriot part of Cyprus has been a full EU member since May 2004.
In return–the plan calls for the lifting of trade restrictions imposed on the TRNC–which remains outside the EU confines–and the opening of its ports to international traffic.
Papadopoulos described the Turkish plan as "an effort by Turkey to avoid its obligations to Cyprus and the European Union… We will study the announcement–but it can’t be construed as a new position."
The most recent settlement effort for Cyprus failed in April 2004 when the Greek Cypriots rejected a UN reunification plan–even though the Turkish Cypriots gave it overwhelming support.