Cypriots set to go to the polls in run-off election Feb 24

(dpa) - Greek Cypriots are set to vote for a president to head a renewed drive to end the Mediterranean island's decades-old division in run-off elections February 24.

In an unexpected turn of events after the majority of Greek Cypriots rejected a 2004 UN peace plan to end the division, the south on Sunday opted to return to the negotiating table after voting to send incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos home in the first round of presidential elections.

The cliffhanger election saw three candidates neck-and-neck until the very last minute. With Papadopoulos out of the picture, Greek Cypriots will now have to decide who will be the best person to find a solution to end the division of the island.

Cypriots will have the choice between two candidates, former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides, 59, and 61-year-old AKEL Communist leader Demetris Chrisofias.

Although from different sides of the political spectrum, the two candidates, Chrisofias and Kasoulides, have both said they want to quickly relaunch negotiations to unite the island with the Turkish Cypriots for fear of permanent partition.

"At this crucial hour the time has come to join our forces and to remember all that unites us and to put our country on a road of self- confidence and optimism," Kasoulides told supporters.

Final results showed Kasoulides ahead with 33.51 per cent of the vote, Christofias second with 33.29 per cent and Papadopoulos third with 31.79 per cent.

Christofias said that he would work together with Turkish Cypriots for a mutually acceptable deal.

The island has been divided since 1974 and Cyprus is represented internationally by the Greek Cypriot government in the south, while the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north is recognised only by Ankara.

"Next Sunday we leave everything that divides us, we leave behind stalemate, we leave behind talk of the past and we forge for a peaceful, happy future for all Cypriots without exception," said Christofias.

The elections took place just as UN mediators are planning a last shot at a peace plan this year 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.

The issue of reunification has always dominated Cypriot elections, but this time the issue 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.

Despite his slim lead in opinion polls, the election had been tabled as a verdict of hardliner Papadopoulos and his handling of the island's division.

Since the 2004 referendum, Papadopoulos has made no real attempt to break the deadlock, and said he would oppose any effort to revive a UN plan to reunite the island if he is re-elected.

Many blamed his failure to take a firm stance to initiate stalled peace talks with the island's Turkish Cypriot community only ended up alienating the Greek Cypriots in the European Union.

"The people have judged and decided. Their choice is completely respected," he said as he conceded the election in a speech.

His supporters along with leaders of smaller parties that backed Papadopoulos will now have to decide in the next coming days which of the two candidates they would lend their support to in Sunday's runoff.

Voting is compulsory in Cyprus as some 516,000 voters, including 390 Turkish Cypriots living in the south, were registered to vote. Turnout was pegged at more than 89 per cent.

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