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Papadopoulos in shock Cyprus win

Opposition leader Papadopoulos, predicted as the winner, has denied he is against reunification of Cyprus.

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NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Greek Cypriot opposition leader Tassos Papadopoulos swept to a shock first round presidential election win that threw a new shadow over hopes of a February 28 peace deal that could reunify the island.

"Mr Papadopoulos has won the election with more than 50 percent of the vote," an election official declared on Sunday evening with nearly all the votes counted.

The upset outright victory by the conservative Papadopoulos ended 40 years at the centre of Cypriot politics for incumbent President Glafcos Clerides, 84. By winning more than 50 percent of the vote there will not be a second round next Sunday as had been expected.

"The Cyprus people have decided. People have voted for change, given me a mandate. I want to give assurances that this will be a unity government," Papadopoulos said in a victory speech.

Papadopoulos, 69, takes over negotiations on behalf of Greek Cypriots for a peace plan by February 28 with Turkish Cypriots that could lead to reunification of the island.

The results could settle whether a united Cyprus signs the EU accession treaty in April or whether the chasm with the Turkish Cypriots grows even larger.

The election pitted 10 candidates for 476,000 votes.

In the eyes of diplomats, Clerides was seen as the more accommodating of the two presidential candidates to clinch a deal, but his chances of re-election were dented by a challenge from within his own traditionally rightist camp of supporters.

The U.N. wants a deal by February 28 to give the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides enough time to prepare for separate referendums on the plan scheduled for March 30, and the signing of an EU accession treaty on April 16.

Annan push for progress

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to visit the island on February 26.

"I think it is safe to say that if there is a chance of the U.N.-led reunification talks continuing after February 28, a lot will depend upon the outcome of this election," one observer who closely monitors the U.N. process told Reuters.

Clerides has played on his bantering rapport with Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash.

Divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek inspired coup, the simmering conflict on the island keeps NATO allies Greece and Turkey at loggerheads and could, without resolution, severely hamper Ankara's own chances of accession to the EU.

Clerides was seeking an abridged 16-month term to see through EU accession and not the five years specified in the constitution. He said he was the best suited to take on Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, with whom he has a bantering rapport.

Papadopoulos had support of the Communist AKEL, one of the largest parties in Cyprus, along with his own centrist Democratic Party.

Scorning assertions from his opponents that he is a closet rejectionist, Papadopoulos says he is committed to negotiating the U.N. plan as a basis for a deal.

"I'd like to know of one reunification plan Clerides accepted and I have rejected," he recently said. "There is none."

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