NICOSIA, Cyprus — Rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders took a stroll together on both sides of the divided capital's medieval center on Saturday to raise the feel-good factor as talks aimed at reunifying the ethnically split island kick into gear.
It's the first time that the leaders have done so since the east Mediterranean island was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey, which maintains more than 30,000 troops in the breakaway north, recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence.
Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci met inside the United Nations-controlled buffer zone before sitting down at cafes on both sides of the divide for coffee, olives, smoked ham, pastries and Zivania, a traditional vodka-like clear spirit.
A smattering of applause and shouts of "well done" greeted both leaders as they walked through the narrow, shop-lined streets on both sides of the divide. One Turkish Cypriot man strumming a mandolin-like instrument serenaded the leaders with a song appealing for peace.
"I want to send a strong message that we shall work tirelessly in order to find a peaceful solution at the earliest possible (date)," Anastasiades said.
Akinci said the leaders must avoid yet another failure after decades of talks have led nowhere.
"We very much would like to give the message of hope because after so many disappointments we need this hope," said Akinci, a moderate who handily defeated the hard-line incumbent in the north's leadership election last month.
"Both sides want peace and this thing has to finally end, we're all Cypriots," said Turkish Cypriot Mehmet Ekingen, the 70-year-old owner of a handicrafts shop inside the Buyuk Han, a 16th century inn in the north where the leaders first sat.
In the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south, the leaders sat at a cafe in the shadow of the 19th-century Phaneromeni Greek Orthodox Church.
Greek Cypriot Miltiades Philippou, 58, said the stroll would create a positive atmosphere that will help the leaders in negotiations.
U.N.-facilitated peace talks resumed last week after an eight-month hiatus. The leaders said they would unveil a number of measures aimed at building trust between the two sides.
A peace accord would bring a huge boost to the island's economy, improve regional security and unlock cooperation on the region's offshore gas reserves. But many thorny issues need to be tackled including how to share power in an envisioned federation and military intervention rights.