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Cyprus reunification talks enter critical phase as leaders submit plans

Cyprus reunification talks have moved into their most critical phase yet after leaders representing the island’s Greek and Turkish communities submitted position papers on how an envisioned federal state would work in practice.

As negotiations entered a second week, delegates, diplomats, peace campaigners and UN officials overseeing the process in Switzerland spoke optimistically of a settlement being in sight. If convergence could be found on security arrangements – the most vexing of all the complex inner workings of a new united Cyprus – the contours of a solution could also be outlined, sources told the Guardian.

“There is reason for real hope,” said one delegate with intimate knowledge of the proceedings. “Some very interesting ideas are coming out.”

The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded and seized its northern third in response to a coup aimed at uniting it with Greece. Despite repeated efforts, reunification attempts have always fallen on stony ground.

But emerging from the conference room after documents had been formally exchanged on Monday, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akıncı, suggested that, this time, the talks had reached a turning point.

“As I said yesterday, this week is critical,” he told reporters gathered in the Swiss Alpine resort of Crans-Montana. In a tweet emphasising what was at stake, the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, spoke of the “significant responsibility of everyone involved in helping Cyprus develop into a normal state”.

Negotiations shifted gear after the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, announced that a “clear understanding” had emerged of what he described as the “essential elements of a package” that might engender a comprehensive settlement.

The Portuguese UN chief, who has taken a hands-on approach to resolving the seemingly intractable decades-long dispute, weighed in at the weekend, meeting the Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, Akıncı and high-level delegations representing Greece, Turkey and Britain, the former crown colony’s ‘guarantor’ powers. All three countries currently retain the right of military intervention in the event of renewed ethnic strife.

“I firmly believe that through determination and political will it will be possible to clear this final hurdle and reach a comprehensive settlement,” Guterres said.

In a promising sign, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced he would skip the G20 summit in Hamburg next weekend to attend the talks.

“The fact that they are still there around the table is very good news,” said one western diplomat, adding that the spirit of the negotiations was in stark opposition to the previous conference on Cyprus earlier this year, which collapsed within days.

Insiders said almost everything now hinged on security and the degree to which Ankara accepts to withdraw troops and relinquish its rights to intervene militarily – rights regarded as an anachronism by fellow guarantors Britain and Greece. An estimated 40,000 mainland Turkish troops are stationed in the island’s breakaway north.

If headway is made, and once both sides have scrutinised each other’s proposals, other outstanding issues of executive power-sharing, territory, property rights, and finance, could easily be settled.

In the event of breakthrough, the leaders of the UK, Turkey and Greece could possibly fly to Switzerland to rubber-stamp the deal by the end of the week.

The progress was enthusiastically received by Cypriots from both sides of the divide, who are also in Crans-Montana for the talks.

“Everyone has been pleasantly surprised by the stance of Greece and Turkey and also of the leaders in Cyprus,” said Andreas Lordos, from the grassroots movement Unite Cyprus Now.

“We are here to take away the abstract notion of dealing with legal and technical issues, to say to those inside the meetings rooms that we are ordinary people who want to live ordinary lives, be courageous, accept peace.”

Any accord would have to be put to referendum and would be likely to take months to finesse as technocrats drew up a new constitution and treaty of implementation.

The possibility of UN troop withdrawal and the prospect of Nikos Anastasiades emerging not only as peacemaker but president of a united Cyprus had focused minds, another diplomat said. “There is a new narrative emerging on Cyprus that is very attractive to all involved. If it fails this time round, everyone knows there won’t be another [reunification] attempt for a very long time.”