NICOSIA Greek and Turkish Cypriots on Thursday pulled down barricades that have separated them for half a century, reopening Ledra Street, a potent symbol of Cyprus's ethnic partition.
The highly symbolic gesture comes as the two communities prepare talks to end the Mediterranean island's division, an obstacle to Turkey's hoped-for membership of the European Union and a source of tension between NATO partners Athens and Ankara.
Hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriots crossed Ledra after the 80-metre stretch of road in the main commercial district of Nicosia was opened to pedestrians in a ceremony attended by United Nations envoys and dignitaries from both communities.
"I couldn't sleep all night. I will walk to St Loukas church (on the Turkish Cypriot side) and light a candle," said Loukia Skordi Salidou, 65.
"My generation is dying. Thank God I'm alive to see this."
An upmarket shopping street on the Greek Cypriot side, Ledra fans out in the north into a maze of haberdasheries and fruit markets, the traditional mainstay of merchants in Nicosia.
"We all know opening Ledra Street does not mean the Cyprus problem is resolved. There is much more hard work to be done," said Elizabeth Spehar, the chief of mission for the United Nations in Cyprus, at the ceremony.
"But the opening gives us a glimpse of what is possible."
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup. The rupture on Ledra Street precedes that by some 15 years, when barricades were erected by Turkish Cypriots in 1958. A more permanent roadblock was erected after ethnic strife in 1963.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots agreed last month to relaunch talks, ending a five-year stalemate in reunification efforts.
"By opening this street, we hope the road to a solution to the Cyprus problem will also open," George Iacovou, an aide to Cyprus President Demetris Christofias, told reporters.
Christofias's election last month on rising discontent with his predecessor's hardline policies towards Turkish Cypriots had raised hopes for a revival of talks stalled since Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint in a 2004 referendum.
Cyprus joined the EU soon afterwards, gaining veto power over Turkey's accession process. The international community and Brussels recognize the Greek Cypriot-controlled government in the south as the island's legitimate authority, while the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is recognized only by Ankara.
The European Commission welcomed the opening of Ledra Street, saying it was an important confidence-building step.
"It shows the two sides on the island are ready to put aside the difficulties of the past and work together to bring a comprehensive settlement and reunification to Cyprus," European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in a statement.
Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat are expected to enter full-fledged negotiations this summer, after assessing progress in ongoing preparatory talks.
"This is a historic event," said Talat's aide, Ozdil Nami, at the opening. "A small step, but a very important step."
Once known as "murder mile" from the days when Greek Cypriot guerillas targeted British colonial troops, Ledra cuts through the heart of medieval Nicosia and across the U.N.-patrolled "green line" splitting the city of about 250,000 residents.
On Thursday, peace campaigners on the Turkish Cypriot side of the street welcomed Greek Cypriots by beating drums.
"We want more streets to open until there are no checkpoints left," said Turkish Cypriot laborer Ahmet Jemal, 53.
(Additional reporting by Simon Bahceli; Writing by Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Catherine Evans)