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 pledging to forge a "strategic partnership" after decades of Greek Cypriot distrust of Washington.
The two men inspected an honour guard from the Greek Cypriot National Guard and laid a wreath at a memorial to independence leader Archbishop Makarios III before heading into the meeting.
In the afternoon, the US vice president was to cross the UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides the island and its capital for talks with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.
The breakaway state that Eroglu leads is recognised only by Turkey, whose troops occupied the island's northern third in 1974, and Biden moved swiftly to reassure Greek Cypriots that the meeting signalled no change in US policy.
Washington recognises only "one legitimate government" in Cyprus, that led by Anastasiades, said Biden, who is only the second US vice president to visit the island and the first since 1962.
"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 together 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 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 beachfront hotels once famed for hosting Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have been crumbling for decades and Greek Cypriot negotiators have been pushing for surveyors to be allowed in to draw up a master plan for their revival.
But Eroglu and Turkish leaders have said repeatedly that the town can only be returned to its original Greek Cypriot inhabitants as part of a comprehensive settlement.
Biden, who flew in from Romania where he called for tough sanctions against Moscow if it interferes with a presidential election in Ukraine on Sunday, was also expected to press Anastasiades not to let the island's economic ties get in the way of a united EU response.
"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.
Cyprus has forged close relations with Moscow for decades amid Greek Cypriot accusations of US collusion in the Turkish invasion which divided the island in 1974.
Exploiting untapped offshore gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean could be another talking point in Biden's meetings as the Ukraine crisis highlights Europe's dependence on Russian energy reserves.
Large reserves have been found off Cyprus and nearby Israel but their viable exploitation for export to Europe is seriously impeded by the island's division and Ankara's refusal to recognise the government led by Anastasiades.