Turkey's Gul reaffirms support for Turkish Cypriots

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ANKARA, Sep 18 (Reuters) Turkey's new president reaffirmed Ankara's support for Turkish Cypriots today, infuriating rival Greek Cypriots on the ethnically divided island.

Only Turkey recognises the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The rest of the world recognises the Greek Cypriot state in the south, which represents the whole island in the European Union that Ankara also aims to join.

''Both our citizens and foreign investors have a strong belief in the future of Turkish Cyprus,'' Abdullah Gul told reporters at Ankara airport before leaving for the Turkish enclave on Cyprus, his first foreign trip since becoming president last month.

Gul, a former foreign minister who grappled with the Cyprus conundrum during Turkey's EU accession talks, repeated Ankara's call for the international community to lift trade restrictions against the TRNC.

But in Nicosia, the Cypriot foreign ministry condemned Gul's decision to visit the TRNC, where Turkey still keeps an estimated 35,000 troops.

''Mr Gul's blatant act to pay his first visit in his capacity as president to the territory of the Republic of Cyprus which today is part of the EU and which for 33 years now is under the illegal military occupation of Turkey... constitutes a blow against the international legal order,'' it said in a statement.

''It shows provocative contempt to an EU member state,'' Cyprus has been split since Turkey invaded the north of the island in 1974 after a Greek Cypriot coup backed by the military junta then ruling Greece.

Turkish Cypriots backed a U.N. blueprint to reunite the Mediterranean island in a 2004 referendum but Greek Cypriots blocked the plan. Days later they entered the EU as the Republic of Cyprus, leaving the Turkish Cypriots out in the cold, and now hold a right of veto over Turkey's own accession bid.

Gul's wife was due to make her public debut as Turkey's First Lady on the TRNC trip. She has so far stayed in the background because Turkey's secular elite, including powerful army generals, object to her wearing the Muslim headscarf.

Gul was due to hold talks with TRNC leader Mehmet Ali Talat and other senior officials during his two-day trip.

REUTERS ARB VC1908

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