Turkey approves EU terms for membership talks; Turkish delegation heading to Luxembourg

Turkey and the European Union agreed Monday to start talks on Ankara's eventual membership in the EU _ a historic step that would transform the bloc by taking in a predominantly Muslim nation and expanding the bloc's borders to the Middle East.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was to fly to Luxembourg for a middle-of-the-night ceremony to formally open entry talks after an agreement was reached after two dramatic days of diplomacy.

EU foreign ministers held crisis talks late into the night Sunday to try persuading Austria _ which lodged last-minute objections to Ankara's bid for full EU membership. Crucially, Vienna dropped its objections late Monday afternoon, paving the way for the EU to send its terms on membership to Ankara.

Turkey approved the terms of the negotiations _ which likely will last a decade _ and a delegation was on its way to Luxembourg.

All 25 EU members had agreed in December to launch entry talks with Turkey on Oct. 3. But last week, Vienna suggested that EU reserve the right to grant Ankara something less than membership if Turkey was unable to meet all membership obligations.

The membership talks were due to open at 5 p.m. (1500GMT) Monday but were pushed back as negotiations among the EU foreign ministers ran late.

Gul, who had delayed his departure for Luxembourg, said his country would not accept second-class citizen status in the EU.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik had wanted a "privileged partnership" for Turkey, questioning the EU's ability to absorb the nation of 70 million people and invoking concerns among Europeans.

Diplomats said Plassnik eventually relented, accepting language in the EU's negotiating mandate stating that "the shared objective of the negotiations is (Turkey's) accession."

However, with the start of talks already in jeopardy, EU member Cyprus _ which Turkey refuses to recognize _ apparently complicated matters.

A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cyprus demanded stronger language in the negotiating mandate to ensure Turkey does not use international organizations to pass anti-Cyprus resolutions. Cypriot officials denied they sought additional demands.

Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou told state television that Turkey was objecting to key clauses in the text. "Consequently there is deadlock at this point," Iacovou said.

Turkey is the only country to recognize a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state declared in the northern part of the divided island.

Although Turkey belongs to NATO, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, its shaky human rights and poor economic past have kept it from becoming a full EU member.

Even when they begin, negotiations with Turkey are expected to last for at least a decade before Turkey joins the EU.

Failure to start the negotiations would be seen as a serious blow to the credibility of the EU, which made Turkey an associate member in 1963 with the prospect of future membership.

In recent years, Ankara has implemented key political and economic reforms, and now wants the EU to make good on its promise to bring it into the bloc.

In a related development, U.N. chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told EU foreign ministers that Croatia _ another entry candidate _ was cooperating fully to try to bring war crimes suspect Gen. Ante Gotovina to trial.

There has been widespread speculation in recent days that in playing up its objections to Turkey, Austria was hoping to persuade the EU to jump-start Croatia's membership drive _ frozen last year over the nation's failure to capture Gotovina.

EU officials insisted Monday there was no link between the Croatia and Turkey talks, AP reported.

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