Greek and Turkish Cypriots open barricaded Nicosia street

(dpa) - Greek and Turkish Cypriots tore down a barricaded pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the divided capital of Nicosia, symbolising decades of the Mediterranean island's division, for the first time in 44 years Thursday.

In a ceremony attended by UN officials, the Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot mayors of Nicosia and aids to the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, the 80-metre street in the main commercial district of Nicosia, was declared open to pedestrians after ribbons attached to balloons were cut.

"We all know that the opening of Ledra Street does not mean the Cyprus problem is resolved. There is much more hard work to be done," said Elizabeth Spehar, the chief of mission for the United Nations in Cyprus.

"But the opening gives us a glimpse of what is possible when all the elements come together," she added.

The opening of Ledra Street, as it is known in Greek and Lokmaci in Turkish, is part of a landmark deal between Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat on March 21 who agreed to resume peace negotiations by the end of June.

"We are living a historic day today. We are witnessing one of the obstacles to a solution come down," Osdil Nami, aid to Talat.

"Almost half a century of division is symbolised in Ledra Street," he said during the ceremony.

"It also symbolises for me that when Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots can over come their fears and they can overcome long-standing disputes and arguments."

The reopened area links the two sides of Ledra Street, closed since 1963 and becomes the sixth crossing point where people can enter the Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north.

United Nations demining experts as well as Greek and Turkish Cypriot engineers had been preparing the crossing, which runs through a UN controlled buffer zone, for pedestrian traffic - paving roads, installing street and securing crumbling buildings with scaffolding for the past week.

Turkish military patrols, part of the 40,000 stationed in the northern third of Cyprus and which were once visible over the divide, were also removed from the immediate area.

"We still have a long way to go," said Greek Cypriot Nicosia Mayor Eleni Mavrou." This is the first step. We hope many more will follow."

Ledra Street has been barricaded since 1964 when British peacekeepers decided to divide the street between Nicosia' s Greek and Turkish communities as a result of intercommunal fighting.

The entire island has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup.

With newly elected Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias in office, expectations are running high for reunification talks to resume, stalled since a UN-brokered peace plan came to nothing almost four years ago when Greek Cypriots voted no.

Both Christofias and Talat agreed last month to resume peace talks by the end of June and to set up several teams of experts to look at issues ranging from environment and health to property and territory disputes as part of their preparations for full negotiations.

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