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Annan pushes for reunified Cyprus

Annan: This is a defining moment for Cyprus

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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is urging the Turks and Greeks in Cyprus to put aside their differences and approve a U.N. proposal to unify the divided Mediterranean island.

"This is a defining moment for Cyprus," Annan told reporters at Ankara Airport on Sunday. "I know we are preoccupied with Iraq, but we should not let it detract us from this crucial moment."

Annan said he will meet with the Turkish president and prime minister Tuesday to discuss Cyprus before traveling on to Greece and Cyprus. The United Nations set a deadline of Feb. 28 for the unification.

If the deadline is not met, only the Greek-backed, internationally recognized portion of Cyprus will be able to sign a European Union accession agreement by April 16, when the EU accepts 10 new members.

"I devoutly hope the treaty [agreement] will be signed on behalf of a united Cyprus," Annan said. "This is also the strong preference of the European Union."

For unification to occur in Cyprus, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots must approve it in a March referendum.

Meanwhile, Cypriot officials on both sides have been weighing a Dec. 10 compromise plan offered by the United Nations.

Tassos Papadopoulos, new leader of the Greek Cypriots, said the proposal must be changed before his citizens will accept it. One of the key issues, he said, includes the right-of-return of all Greek Cypriot refugees forced from the Turkish-occupied north and full respect of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, who is backed by Ankara, also opposes the plan. He wants Turkish Cyprus to be recognized diplomatically as a prelude to establishing the proposed federation.

"I wish to do all I can to encourage the leaders to muster the spirit of compromise, courage and leadership, which they are capable of," Annan said.

Cyprus, a point of tension between NATO allies Turkey and Greece for decades, has been divided into a Turkish north and Greek south since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded in response to a brief military coup by Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece.

"This is a critical moment in the region, and Turkey has a central role to play," Annan said.

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