Cypriots go to the polls to vote for a new president

( dpa )- Greek Cypriots began casting their ballots to vote for a new president Sunday in elections seen as crucial to help resume stalled peace talks on the divided Mediterranean island. Polls suggest it will be a close race between three main contenders: incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos, 74, who led the southern part of the island to reject a 2004 UN peace plan; Demetrios Christofias, 61, of the AKEL communist party; and right-winger Ioannis Kasoulides of the conservative DISY. If no candidate receives at least 50 per cent of votes, the election would be settled in a February 24 run-off between the top two vote-getters. Hours before campaigning ended at midnight Friday, Papadopoulos appealed to voters to give him a fresh five-year mandate and to send a clear message that Cypriot's do not regret turning down the plan. "It is very important to send the message both at home and abroad that the Cypriot people decide their own fate," Papadopoulos said. The elections are to take place just as UN mediators are planning a last shot at a peace plan intended to mend the divisions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots on opposite sides of a ceasefire line that has split the island for the past 35 years. The ongoing conflict has been a thorn in relations between NATO allies Greece and Turkey and has served as an obstacle to Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. All three main candidates claim to be the best qualified to head negotiations with the Turkish Cypriot community, which has been isolated ever since Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in 1974. Since the 2004 referendum, Papadopoulos has made no real attempt to break the deadlock, and recently said he would oppose any effort to revive a UN plan to reunite the island if he is re-elected. Unlike Christofias, who has said he would follow a "friendship offensive" towards the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot community, Papadopoulos has opted for a slower approach based on confidence- building measures. Kasoulides, a former foreign minister and now a member of the European Parliament, has promised a more active approach to the Cyprus problem. During his election campaign, he pledged to pursue talks with Turkish Cypriots and gather an international panel of experts to seek a reunification deal. The issue of reunification has always dominated Cypriot elections, but this time the issue has gained a sense of urgency as many Greek Cypriots believe new UN-led negotiations may be the island's last chance to end the division. Some 516,000 voters, including 390 Turkish Cypriots living in the south, are registered to vote. The president is elected for a five-year term and is the head of the Cypriot government. Polling stations opened at 7am (0500 GMT) and close at 5pm (1500 GMT) with a one-hour break at noon. Cypriot officials have said final results are expected at around 2030 (1830 GMT).

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