NICOSIA (Reuters) - Britain said on Friday it hoped the discovery of valuable gas fields around Cyprus would eventually help unite the island's ethnically-divided communities, after decades of diplomacy had failed to clinch a peace deal.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the prospect of sharing the resources could persuade politicians to end the bitter dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots on the island split by war in 1974.
Up to now, the natural gas discoveries in the past year have had the opposite effect. Arguments over the ownership of the fields has deepened the split.
Turkey, which has close ties to the Turkish Cypriot side of the divide island, sent warships to the region when the Greek Cypriot side started drilling.
"We have supported the rights of Cyprus to develop resources but I hope that doing so can somehow be an incentive for the settlement of the problem, rather than a disincentive," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters in Nicosia, Cyprus's ethnically-divided capital.
"It should be something that helps with a settlement ... It should be regarded in that way by all involved," he said after a meeting with Cypriot President Demetris Christofias at the presidential palace, a sandstone building that was once the residence of the British governor to Cyprus.
Greek Cypriots, who make up the government that represents Cyprus internationally, announced a natural gas find in December 2011, three months after it started drilling for gas.
The island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Peace talks over the years to reunite Cyprus as a federation have been inconclusive.
Negotiations are now effectively on hold as Cyprus holds the rotating EU presidency, but there are deep differences between the sides on power-sharing and the rights of thousands uprooted in fighting.
Britain, which ruled Cyprus as a colony until 1960, is a guarantor power of the island's sovereignty under a convoluted independence treaty. Turkey and Greece are also guarantor powers.
Hague said Britain was ready to help reunification talks. "We hope of course that faster progress will be made in the future," he said.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Andrew Heavens)