Nicosia: Leaders of rival communities in ethnically-split Cyprus shared coffee and cake on Saturday in a symbolic gesture underscoring a thaw in relations over a conflict spanning decades.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci spent more than an hour strolling through medieval streets of Nicosia, a first in the history of the Cyprus dispute.
"This is a historic day," Akinci told reporters, clapping wellwishers as he and Anastasiades walked across a United Nations-monitored `green line` keeping Greek and Turkish Cypriots apart.
Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek inspired coup, but seeds of division were sown at least a decade earlier. In Nicosia, peacekeepers monitor a `buffer zone` slicing through the capital of no-man`s land only they are permitted to enter.
Relations between the sides have taken a marked turn for the better since the election of Akinci on April 26, and peace talks resumed on May 15.
"We will work very hard to achieve a lasting peace deal the soonest possible," said Anastasiades.
"We very much would like to give the message of hope because after so many disappointments we need this hope. But, of course, what we need more is not to create yet another disappointment," said Akinci.
Both were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers as they crossed informal borders from one side of Nicosia to the other, stopped occasionally by people offering them flowers and cakes. Some shopkeepers handed the leaders trinkets of blue and white stone, an amulet known in both cultures and thought to ward off the `evil eye`.
"We need peace. We have to stop messing around and sort this out before there are no Cypriots left," said Turkish Cypriot Nerzat Ozmel, 65.
Both sides officially agree in practice to unite the island under a two-state federal umbrella, but disagree on issues such as competencies of a central government, residency rights and property rights of thousands of internally displaced people.
The last major deal attempt collapsed in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a reunification blueprint accepted by Turkish Cypriots.