GENEVA (AP) — Turkey must continue to underwrite the security of Cyprus, even if there's a deal reunifying the island that's divided along ethnic Greek and Turkish lines, Turkey's president said Friday.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said no arrangement to safeguard the two communities from possible hostilities if peace breaks down can be made without Turkey's involvement.
But he didn't rule out a complete pullout of thousands of soldiers that Turkey keeps on Cyprus as long as Greece, which also deploys a small troop contingent on the island, does the same.
"For Turkish soldiers to withdraw from there completely is out of the question," Erdogan said in Istanbul after Friday prayers. "If such a thing is being considered, then we said both sides' soldiers need to be completely withdrawn."
Erdogan's spokesman said a small number of troops could remain after reunification in line with a previous, failed U.N.-brokered plan.
Ibrahim Kalin suggested what's at stake is not only the security of Cyprus, but of the entire eastern Mediterranean.
"We don't think our military presence should be seen as a threat to the Greek Cypriots just as we don't see the Greek presence there as a threat to the Turkish Cypriot community there," Kalin told reporters in Ankara.
The Turkish officials' remarks came a day after the top diplomats of Cyprus' "guarantors" — Greece, Turkey and Britain — gathered in Geneva to discuss ways of providing post-reunification security.
It was the first time security — which has stumped previous rounds of talks — has been discussed at such a high level.
The meeting came after 20 months of negotiations between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci that focused on the internal aspects of a deal like power-sharing in an aimed-for federation.
Officials will meet Wednesday in Switzerland to start work. It's hoped enough progress is made so that Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, Britain's Boris Johnson and Turkey's Mevlut Cavusoglu — along with Anastasiades and Akinci — can resume talks in Geneva.
Akinci suggested guarantees and Turkish troops could remain for several years after reunification to allow fear and mistrust to fade. Anastasiades has proposed an international police force to oversee security for a period after a peace deal.
Anastasiades said in Geneva that the fact that the guarantors broached the security issue offers hope for a deal.
"As long as the dialogue remains alive and as long as there are steps demonstrating a willingness to negotiate, I'm hopeful," Anastasiades told reporters.
Turkey has more than 35,000 troops stationed in the island's Turkish-speaking north of Cyprus since 1974 when it invaded in response to a coup aiming at union with Greece.
Security is central to a reunification deal because it goes to the heart of Greek and Turkish Cypriot fears.
"We are in agreement that the security of one community should not be perceived as a threat by the other community," Akinci told reporters in Geneva. "The point is where can you strike the balance?"
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Suzan Frazer in Ankara, and Cinar Kiper in Istanbul, contributed to this report.