Nicosia: US Vice President Joe Biden met Cyprus leaders Thursday to spur talks on ending their island`s 40-year division and seek support for threatened sanctions against Russia.
After talks with President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Turkish Cypriot counterpart Dervis Eroglu, Biden cautioned against overstating the role of the United States in reunification efforts.
"For as bad and as good as we are, we do not have the capacity to be able to settle the problems you have," he told a group of civil society activists in the UN-patrolled buffer zone.
Biden first held talks with Anastasiades, who has overseen an improvement in Washington-Nicosia ties since he took office last year after decades of Greek Cypriot distrust of the United States, a close ally of Turkey.
Anastasiades said Biden`s visit proved the "significant improvement in the partnership between Cyprus and the United States, a partnership which we can now call strategic".
He appealed for US support in tapping the island`s offshore gas reserves, whose exploitation for export to Europe has been hampered by the division and a festering dispute with Turkey.
US interest in the reserves reaching European markets has been increased by the Ukraine crisis, which has highlighted European dependency on Russian energy supplies.
"Cyprus is poised to become a key player in the Eastern Mediterranean, transforming the Eastern Mediterranean into a new global hub for natural gas and markets," Biden said.
Assessing the meeting, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said Washington had "recognised the role that the Republic of Cyprus can play as an alternative energy corridor, not only for the region but Europe in general".
Biden later crossed the so-called Green Line dividing the island and its capital to meet Gluer.
The breakaway state that Eroglu leads is recognised only by Turkey, and the vice president moved swiftly to reassure Greek Cypriots that the meeting signalled no change in US policy.
Washington recognises only "one legitimate government" in Cyprus, that led by Anastasiades, he said on arrival Wednesday.
Eroglu said after the meeting in northern Nicosia that "the time has come for a solution to the Cyprus issue".
"We can not proceed by blaming or driving each other into a corner. We hope that Biden`s efforts will pay off," he said.
Biden said he wanted to lend his support to UN-backed reunification talks that the rival Cypriot leaders relaunched in February, but details of a settlement were for them to work out.
He said it was "long past time... that all Cypriots are reunited in a bizonal, bicommunal federation".
Biden was to dine with the two leaders and their negotiators in the buffer zone later on Thursday before winding up the highest-level visit by a US official in 50 years.
Anastasiades has been pushing for major concessions by both sides to build confidence before any referendum on a comprehensive settlement.
In particular, he has been calling for the return of the ghost town of Varosha -- once the island`s premier tourist resort but emptied of its inhabitants and closed by the Turkish army for 40 years.
The Greek Cypriot leader appealed for Biden`s continued support for his proposals, particularly on Varosha.
On the Ukraine crisis, Biden was expected to press Anastasiades not to let the island`s close economic ties with Russia get in the way of a united EU response if Moscow interferes with the Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday.
"We have to be resolute and united in the face of Russian intervention," he said.
The issue of harsher EU sanctions against Moscow is highly sensitive in Nicosia, where Russian investors have deposits worth billions of euros (dollars) in Cypriot banks.
Cyprus has underlined further sanctions could seriously damage its economy, already badly hit by the eurozone debt crisis, which forced Anastasiades to secure an international bailout in March 2013.
Cyprus has been divided since Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in 1974 in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting it with Greece.