Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday he favours a permanent division of Cyprus into two states, during a visit to the breakaway Turkish-held north decried as a "provocation" by the internationally recognised Greek-speaking south.
The comments marked a further setback to hopes for an eventual reunification of the Mediterranean island which is split between EU member the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the island's southern two thirds, and the north occupied by Turkey since 1974.
"There are two peoples and two separate states in Cyprus," said Erdogan. "There must be talks for a solution on the basis of two separate states."
During his visit, Turkish jets left vapour trails in the sky in the shape of the star and crescent of the Turkish flag -- mirroring a huge flag painted decades ago on a rocky mountainside in the north.
Erdogan's visit to the Turkish-held statelet recognised only by Ankara comes amid heightened tensions on the island and in the Eastern Mediterranean and was condemned as a "provocation without precedent" by the Republic of Cyprus.
His trip marked the 37th anniversary of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) where an estimated 30,000 Turkish troops are stationed.
The Turkish president was later to attend a "picnic" in the disputed beachfront area of Varosha along the UN buffer zone that has divided the island since Turkey's invasion.
Ghost town 'picnic'
Varosha -- once the playground of celebrities and dubbed a "Jewel of the Mediterranean" -- has since been a fenced off ghost town, where former luxury hotels and restaurants have fallen into disrepair and overgrown by weeds.
Turkish troops partially reopened the seafront of Varosha on October 8, sparking international criticism.
The last UN-sponsored peace talks, based on a reunification of the island, failed in 2017.
An eventual reunification has looked more remote since an Erdogan-backed Turkish nationalist, Ersin Tatar, was elected leader of the north last month.
Unlike his predecessor, Mustafa Akinci, who advocated reunification in the form of a federal state, Tatar also favours a two-state solution.
The 1974 Turkish invasion was launched in response to an Athens-engineered coup in Nicosia designed to unify Cyprus with Greece, and was followed on November 15, 1983 by the declaration of the TRNC.
Erdogan insisted Sunday that "the only victims in the Cyprus issue are the Turkish Cypriots whose rights and existence have been ignored for years".
His visit comes as Turkey has openly sparred with neighbours Greece and Cyprus over maritime territories believed to hold vast gas deposits.
The Turkish leader stressed that "we will continue our seismic research and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean until a fair agreement can be reached".
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades condemned Erdogan's visit, as well as what he called the historical "secessionist act of the declaration of the illegal regime" in the north.
He said Erdogan's visit served to "torpedo" UN-led efforts to work toward resolving "the Cyprus problem" in talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Athens, Ankara and former colonial power London.
Erdogan's increasingly assertive stance has sparked protests in the south -- but also in the north, where many Turkish Cypriots resent Ankara's interference in the island's politics.
"No interference! Freedom for all!" hundreds of Turkish Cypriot protesters chanted in northern Nicosia on Tuesday to denounce Erdogan's visit.