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Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades attends a news conference after the meeting with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades accused rival Turkish Cypriots on Wednesday of seeking a pretext to stall peace talks to avoid an overlap with Turkey's constitutional referendum next month.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots had been making steady progress in the talks, widely seen as the best opportunity in decades to end the ethnic partition of the Mediterranean island, but they hit a snag in February.

"It would have been more honest for (Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci) to have said it's best to suspend negotiations until the referendum is over," Anastasiades told Greece's Skai TV in a television interview.

Turkey, whose role in a post-reunification Cyprus remains a highly sensitive issue in the talks, will hold a referendum on April 16 on boosting the powers of President Tayyip Erdogan.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the north in response to a brief Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military then ruling Greece.

Ankara keeps up to 30,000 troops in northern Cyprus, a breakaway state it supports both politically and financially.

Last month the peace talks were abruptly interrupted when Greek Cypriot lawmakers decided to have a 1950 "enosis" referendum that sought union with Greece honoured in schools.

Enosis, as a concept, was abandoned by Greek Cypriots long ago, but the decision to commemorate the date in schools touched a raw nerve with Turkish Cypriots who say the ambition of union with Greece was the source of the island's division.

In his interview, Anastasiades said the Greek Cypriot move over honouring the 1950 referendum had been "a mistake", but added: "That shouldn't be a justification for Akinci to abandon the talks. He was looking for a pretext."

The plebiscite row has underscored the fragility of Cyprus' peace process, which aims to craft a new partnership between the two sides on the island.

(Writing By Michele Kambas; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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