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Biden in Cyprus talks on reunification, Russia sanctions

US Vice President Joe Biden met Cyprus leaders Thursday to spur talks on ending the island's 40-year division and seek support for threatened sanctions against Russia despite the economic cost.

NICOSIA: US Vice President Joe Biden met Cyprus leaders Thursday to spur talks on ending the island's 40-year division and seek support for threatened sanctions against Russia despite the economic cost.

Biden held lunchtime talks with the island's conservative President Nicos Anastasiades, who has overseen a sharp improvement in relations since he took office last year after decades of Greek Cypriot distrust of Washington.

Anastasiades said that Biden's visit -- the first by a US vice president since 1962 -- was testament to the "significant improvement in the partnership between Cyprus and the United States, a partnership which we can now call strategic".

He appealed to Biden for US support in tapping the island's offshore gas reserves, whose exploitation for export to Europe has been hampered by the division and a festering dispute with Turkey, which occupied Cyprus' northern third in 1974.

US interest in the reserves -- and even bigger ones off nearby Israel -- reaching European markets has been increased by the Ukraine crisis which has highlighted European dependency on energy supplies from Russia.

In the afternoon, Biden went across the UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides the island and its capital and held talks with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.

The breakaway state that Eroglu leads is recognised only by Turkey, and the US vice president moved swiftly to reassure Greek Cypriots that the meeting signalled no change in US policy.

Washington recognises only "one legitimate government" in Cyprus, that is led by Anastasiades, Biden said. "My visit and meetings throughout the island will not change that."

Biden said he wanted to lend his support to the UN-backed reunification talks that the rival Cypriot leaders relaunched in February but said the details of a settlement were for them to work out.

He said it was "long past time... that all Cypriots are reunited in a bizonal, bicommunal federation," but added he had not come "to present or impose one."

He was to dine with the two leaders and their negotiators in the buffer zone in the evening, along with the head of the island's now 50-year-old UN peacekeeping mission, Lisa Buttenheim.

The international community has welcomed greater input from Washington in the talks in the hope that it might enable a breakthrough after two years of stalemate.

There has been no high-level US involvement in efforts to end the island's division since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN reunification plan in a 2004 referendum.

Anastasiades has been pushing for major concessions by both sides to build confidence before any new referendum on a comprehensive settlement.

In particular, he has been calling for the return of the ghost town of Varosha -- once the island's premier tourist resort but emptied of its inhabitants and closed off by the Turkish army for the past 40 years.

The Greek Cypriot leader appealed for Biden's continued support for his proposals, particularly on Varosha.

"I would like to express my gratitude to the United States and to you personally Mr Vice President... for believing both in the importance of reuniting Cyprus and the need to implement confidence building measures while negotiations are under way," he said.

But Biden was likely to meet strong resistance from the Turkish Cypriot leader to any major concessions on Varosha in their afternoon talks.

Both Eroglu and Turkish leaders have said repeatedly the town can only be returned to its original Greek Cypriot inhabitants as part of a comprehensive settlement.

Biden was also expected to press Anastasiades not to let the island's close economic ties with Russia get in the way of a united EU response if Moscow interferes with Sunday's presidential election in Ukraine.

"We have to be resolute and united in the face of Russian intervention," he said.

The issue of harsher EU sanctions against Moscow is highly sensitive in Nicosia, where Russian investors have deposits worth billions of euros (dollars) in Cypriot banks.

Cyprus has underlined that further sanctions could seriously damage its economy, already badly hit by the eurozone debt crisis, which forced Anastasiades to secure an international bailout in March 2013 that has led to a sharp recession.

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