NICOSIA May 21 U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
visited ethnically-split Cyprus on Wednesday to lend support to
complex peace talks on an island which has the potential to play
an important role in easing Europe's reliance on Russian gas.
Biden, on a two-day visit, was due to meet Cypriot President
and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot
leader Dervis Eroglu.
Cyprus has been split since a 1974 Turkish military
invasion, dividing the north from the south after a brief Greek
Cypriot coup engineered by the military then ruling Greece.
"It's long past time ... that Cypriots are reunited," Biden
said on his arrival.
A settlement to the Cyprus dispute, one of the oldest on the
United Nations agenda, has eluded an army of mediators over the
Attempts to seal a deal have gained urgency since the
discovery of vast quantities of natural gas in the eastern
Mediterranean between Cyprus and Israel.
"The discovery of hydrocarbons in the Cypriot (waters) could
position Cyprus, we believe, as an energy and economic leader in
the region," a senior U.S. administration official said before
Cyprus has licenced a U.S. company, Noble, to drill
for natural gas after discoveries off its southern coast. It has
also licenced European companies ENI and Total to
search for gas.
U.S. support for further European Union sanctions on Russia
over the annexation of Crimea would also feature prominently in
talks, sources said.
Cyprus, a key business partner of Russia in the EU, opposes
further sanctions which could hurt its economy, still struggling
after being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund and
the EU last year.
Biden, who is the most senior U.S. official to visit Cyprus
since Lyndon Johnson in 1962, was due to meet religious leaders
from both sides of the divide on Thursday, have separate talks
with the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and attend a
joint dinner with the two.
Cypriot sources said it was unlikely that Biden would
announce any breakthrough in confidence-building measures under
discussion between the two sides for months. "It will be more
like a wish-list," one Cypriot source said.
A new round of reunification talks was launched between
Anastasiades and Eroglu on Feb. 11. Mediators are trying to
unite the island as a two-zone federation, but fundamental
differences remain on issues such as power sharing and the
property rights of thousands displaced in past conflict.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)