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Greece, Turkey agree to disagree, visit not fixed

By Staff
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THESSALONIKI, Greece, May 4 (Reuters) - Greece and Turkey today failed again to set a date for a historic visit of the Greek Prime Minister to Ankara, a signal their ties have cooled after years of rapprochement.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis met his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan for about 45 minutes but the two did not set a date for the much-anticipated trip, which would be the first by a Greek premier in almost half a century.

Before the meeting, Greek officials said they had hoped to make progress toward setting a date for the visit.

Watched as a signal of warming ties, the visit has been on and off for almost a year since it was announced by the Greece in mid-2005. It has been postponed at least twice as relations between the two nations have soured in recent months.

''It is understandable that our views on several matters do not match. But our ties are much better than they were in past years,'' Karamanlis told reporters. ''There is the will to improve them further.'' The two nations had done more in the past six years to improve relations than they have in half a century.

But ties have cooled in the months since the start of European Union accession talks with Turkey late last year, over a series of long-standing territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus as well as several religious issues.

''We cannot expect something specific from this meeting. They are meetings to improve ties and keep this dynamism going,'' Karamanlis said. ''These meetings are crucial and they will continue to take place.'' BOOST TRADE Relations rapidly improved following consecutive earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999 that triggered an outpouring of sympathy and aid across the Aegean.

Trade, investments and tourism between the two have since grown steadily but the two neighbours have failed to settle any of their major disputes.

The two leaders agreed on the sidelines of a regional meeting in the northern city of Thessaloniki to work towards increasing the annual trade volume from the current 2 billion dollars to about 5 billion dollars in the coming years.

''We did put special emphasis on our economic collaboration,'' Karamanlis said, saying 5.0 billion dollars was ''our next target''.

Athens has strongly backed Ankara's bid to start European Union accession talks and eventually join the wealthy bloc, but the two sides are at odds over Cyprus, divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974.

Greece is annoyed by Turkey's refusal to implement an EU customs union agreement allowing Greek Cypriot planes and ships to use Turkish airports and ports, as part of its commitments following the start of EU talks last October.

Turkey says the EU has to fulfil its promise to lift a trade embargo on the breakaway Turkish Cypriot half of the island.

Reuters SY RN1827

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