Turkish Cypriots halt own search to allow resumption of Cyprus peace talks

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NICOSIA, Cyprus — Hopes of a restart to talks to reunify the small Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus swelled Monday after breakaway Turkish Cypriots said they will halt their own search for gas off Cyprus' coast.

Ozdil Nami, Turkish Cypriot foreign minister, told The Associated Press that a Turkish vessel that has been searching for gas the last few months will be sent back to Turkey. Nami also said that a notice alerting shipping traffic to an ongoing gas search won't be renewed if Greek Cypriots don't renew their own.

The decision to send the research ship back follows the departure of an Italian-South Korean consortium that had been carrying out exploratory drilling off Cyprus on the authorization of the Cypriot government.

Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup aimed at union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the island's northern third is recognized only by Turkey which keeps 35,000 troops there. Cyprus is a European Union member, but only the Greek Cypriot southern part enjoys full membership benefits.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades suspended peace talks last October after Turkey announced its own quest for gas in waters where the Cypriot government licensed companies to drill.

Anastasiades called the move a serious breach of Cyprus' sovereign rights. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots though said a unilateral Greek Cypriot search for gas ignores the rights of Turkish Cypriots to any potential hydrocarbon bonanza.

Turkish Cypriots have insisted that either both sides can carry out drilling or that drilling should be halted altogether. The Cypriot government says it has the sovereign right to carry out any drilling inside its waters, but has vowed to share any potential profits after a reunification deal is reached.

Earlier this month, U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide said an opportunity to restart talks has emerged in the wake of disappointing drilling results. Both France's Total and the consortium made up of Italy's Eni and South Korea's Kogas announced in recent weeks that they had failed to find commercially viable amounts of gas during exploratory drilling.

The Turkish Cypriot announcement came as Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos — who is on a two-day visit to Cyprus — urged Turkey on Monday to "take steps of goodwill and of progress" on Cyprus.

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