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US vice-president looks to energy, Ukraine, reunification talks on trip to divided Cyprus

A man passes by an electricity column with a US flag, left, and Cypriot flag displayed, in divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Cyprus Wednesday for an official, three-day visit to the ethnically divided island. Energy prospects in the east Mediterranean, the situation in Ukraine and talks to reunify Cyprus will top Biden's agenda, who is the most senior American official to visit the island in 52 years. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

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A man passes by an electricity column with a US flag, left, and Cypriot flag displayed, in divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Cyprus Wednesday for an official, three-day visit to the ethnically divided island. Energy prospects in the east Mediterranean, the situation in Ukraine and talks to reunify Cyprus will top Biden's agenda, who is the most senior American official to visit the island in 52 years. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

NICOSIA, Cyprus - U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden travels Wednesday to Cyprus to discuss the country's reunification efforts and its ability to tap gas deposits, which could turn the east Mediterranean island into a source of stability in a tumultuous region.

Biden, the most senior American official to visit Cyprus since his predecessor Lyndon Johnson in 1962, is expected to voice support for talks to reunify the island, which was divided along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.

A peace deal would have regional repercussions as it could help mend strained relations between key U.S. regional allies Turkey and Israel. Those countries fell out after Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010.

A reunified Cyprus could also act as a conduit to transport Cypriot and Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey via a pipeline, helping to reduce the continent's energy dependence on Russia, which has threatened to cut deliveries amid the Ukrainian crisis.

"If diplomacy succeeds, energy resources could therefore provide the impetus required to resolve deep and longstanding disputes," said Sofronis Clerides, an economics professor at the University of Cyprus.

U.S. company Noble Energy is already involved in developing the island's sole proven gas field, along with Israeli partners Delek and Avner.

Biden's visit comes on the invitation of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, who has realigned Cyprus' policies more in favour of the U.S. and Europe in contrast to his predecessor, a move the U.S. administration has welcomed.

Biden will also delve into the possibility of stronger sanctions against Russia over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

But bailed-out Cyprus relies on Russian tourists and bank deposits to buoy its weakened economy and doesn't want to harm its long-standing relationship with Moscow. The Cypriot government favours excluding some EU countries from a harsher sanctions regime or granting them the ability to opt out.

However, the U.S. believes that "speaking with one voice" on sanctions is best when confronting Russia over Ukraine, a senior U.S. administration official said on condition of anonymity.

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