Mehmet Ali Talat, 53, captured 56% of the vote in Sunday's race for the presidency of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, replacing its 81-year-old founder, Rauf Denktash, a hardliner who long opposed efforts to reunite the northern state with the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south.

At a press conference, Talat said he was ready to resume peace talks with the internationally recognised government in the south of the island.

"Turkish Cypriots once again reiterated their determination for a solution and the reunification of Cyprus," he said.

"I have to do my best to reach and safeguard a solution to the Cyprus problem.

Denktash did not run in the election. Talat's main rival, Dervis Eroglu, who supported many of Denktash's policies, received 23% of the vote.

Settlement focus

Talat's campaign focused heavily on a settlement to the island's partition, and Talat said his victory was a mandate to push for reunification of the island, which has been divided since Turkey invaded in 1974 following a failed coup by supporters of union with Greece.

Talat told supporters they had
carried out a 'silent revolution'

"For all of those who want peace ... the (presidential) palace is now yours," Talat told some 2000 screaming, flag-waving supporters at a square in the divided capital of Nicosia.

"You have carried out a silent revolution."

The change in leadership reflected the growing wish of many voters, especially young ones, for a settlement to the island's partition and full participation in the European Union.

Cyprus joined the bloc last year, but the island's division has excluded Turkish Cypriots in the north from most benefits.

Rising popularity

Talat said: "I am also calling on the Greek Cypriot leaders that I am extending my hand for peace and this hand will be there until it is held. I sincerely believe that one day this hand will be held."

His call for change has been steadily rising in popularity in northern Cyprus.

Veteran politician Rauf Denktash
strongly opposes reunification

His centre-left Republican Turkish Party came to power following December 2003 elections, and he quickly backed a UN-brokered plan to reunite the divided island before Cyprus' accession to the European Union last year.

But challenges lie ahead of any settlement. Although an overwhelming majority of Turkish Cypriots backed the plan in a referendum, Greek Cypriots voted it down.

Many Greek Cypriots said it gave too many concessions to Turkey, which maintains thousands of troops on the island, and did not allow enough Greek Cypriot refugees to return to the north.

"With all of our hearts, we want Cyprus to be as a whole in the European Union," Talat supporter Erdin Vehci said. "Now the ball is in the Greek Cypriots' court."

Change welcomed

The Greek Cypriot leadership in the south welcomed the change in leadership.

"With all of our hearts, we want Cyprus to be
as a whole in the European Union. Now
the ball is in the Greek Cypriots' court"

Erdin Vehci,
Turkish Cypriot voter

Cyprus government spokesman Kypros Chrysostomides called the "end of the presence of Rauf Denktash in the Turkish Cypriot leadership ... a positive development".

The "Cyprus government expresses the hope that the Turkish Cypriot leadership around Mr Talat will ... contribute ... to the achievement of a just and viable settlement the soonest possible".

Denktash's insistence on international recognition for his Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus had long proven a central stumbling bloc in efforts to reunite the island.

Talat's victory is also a boost for Turkey, which is eager for a settlement as it pursues its own bid to join the European Union.