Turkey's Gul urges peace, equality in Cyprus

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NICOSIA, Sep 18 (Reuters) Turkey's new president called today for a Cyprus peace settlement that respected both ethnic communities on the divided island, and defended the role of the Turkish army against Greek Cypriot criticism.

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.

''There are two realities on Cyprus, two democracies, two states, two languages, two religions,'' President Abdullah Gul said, making his first foreign trip since becoming president last month.

''One has to accept that a solution must be based on these realities,'' Gul told a joint news conference with TRNC leader Mehmet Ali Talat.

But the Cypriot foreign ministry in the south of the divided capital of Nicosia condemned Gul's trip to 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.

Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos recently renewed his demand for the withdrawal of all Turkish troops from the island, describing them as the only enemy of the Cypriot people.

PEACE Gul, who previously grappled with the Cyprus conundrum as Turkey's foreign minister, rejected the idea of withdrawal.

''The Turkish military brought peace to Cyprus, and for the south too... The (enemy) accusation is groundless,'' he said.

Speaking earlier to reporters in Ankara, Gul expressed confidence in the TRNC's economic prospects, noting that gross domestic product has doubled in the past few years despite continued international trade restrictions against the enclave.

Gul repeated Turkey's call for the EU to honour its promise to lift those restrictions. The Greek Cypriots have so far blocked such a move, fearing it could lead to de facto international recognition of the TRNC.

Turkish Cypriots backed a UN 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.

Gul is the first Turkish head of state to visit northern Cyprus since the island joined the EU.

Turkey itself began EU entry talks in October 2005, but negotiations have been frozen in eight areas because of Ankara's refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic.

Gul's wife accompanied him to Cyprus, making her public debut as Turkey's First Lady. She has so far stayed in the background because Turkey's secular elite, including powerful army generals, object to her Muslim headscarf.

REUTERS SR AS2249

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