updated 4/8/2004 7:14:41 PM ET 2004-04-08T23:14:41

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed hope Thursday that Greek and Turkish Cypriots would vote “yes” in referendums on a U.N. plan to reunify Cyprus, despite their leaders’ rejection of the blueprint.

Cypriots have come under strong international pressure to accept the U.N. plan so that the island, divided for 30 years, may join the European Union as a united country on May 1. If Greek and Turkish Cypriots don’t vote “yes” in the April 24 plebiscites, EU laws and benefits will only apply to the southern, Greek Cypriot part of the island.

Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash has opposed the plan all along but Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, the Greek Cypriot leader, only announced his opposition on Wednesday night in an emotional televised address in which he urged people to vote “a resounding no.”

The two leaders agreed in February that if they couldn’t decide on all the issues, Annan would decide on the final plan, upon which Greek and Turkish Cypriots would vote.

Annan disappointed
Annan, in a statement from his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, expressed disappointment at Papadopoulos’ rejection but urged Cypriots to take the opportunity to reunite their country.

“The secretary-general fully respects the wishes of the people and will not interfere in their decisions. However, he reiterates that Cypriots have a unique opportunity to reunite their country, and he hopes that they will seize it while it is before them,” Eckhard said in Geneva.

Annan’s top envoy in Cyprus, Alvaro de Soto, echoed the secretary-general, telling reporters after a 45-minute meeting with Papadopoulos, “What I am hoping for is that this initiative, which is still on course, will culminate positively.”

Papadopoulos responded that, as president, he was obligated to tell Cypriots “what I felt and believed. Beyond that, the decision is the people’s.”

He was speaking after a meeting with members of the Synod of the Greek Orthodox Cyprus Church, which issued a statement urging the people to vote no in the April 24 referendum.

Denktash asked the United Nations to delay the referendum and hold more negotiations.

Underscoring mutual interests
But Mehmet Ali Talat, who serves as prime minister of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north, said it was in the interests of both sides to accept the plan.

“If the Greek Cypriots say ’no’ to this plan, they will still join the EU, but they will definitely be politically isolated. If the Turkish Cypriots say ‘no,’ embargoes will be intensified and their isolation will increase,” Talat said at a conference in Istanbul.

Cyprus has been split into a Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish-occupied north since Turkey invaded in 1974 after an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is only recognized by Turkey which maintains 40,000 troops there.

The Annan plan provides a new constitution for the proposed United Cyprus Republic, which would consist of two federal “constituent states,” one Greek and one Turkish Cypriot, linked through a weak central government.

Papadopoulos complained in his Wednesday address that the plan “writes off” the consequences of Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus and legitimizes “the illegal presence of the tens of thousands of Turkish mainland settlers.” He said it violates basic human rights and European Union principles ensuring refugees can return to their properties.

Denktash rejects the plan as failing to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots, saying it would create “a Greek Cypriot republic.”

Polls: Greek Cypriots would vote 'no'
Opinion polls indicate most Greek Cypriots would vote no in the referendum even though the two main political parties commanding more than 70 percent of the vote urged their members to vote yes.

On the other side, many Turkish Cypriots favor reunification and the economic boost they would get as members of the EU.

An opinion poll by a private, independent Turkish Cypriot company, made public Thursday, found that about 60 percent of Turkish Cypriots approved of the Annan plan. Twenty-two percent said they’d vote “no” and the rest were undecided. The poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 875 Turkish Cypriots from March 24 to April 2, had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

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