NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus cut compulsory military service Thursday from 24 months to 14 months, fulfilling a campaign promise after years of deliberations.

Defense Minister Christoforos Fokaides said professional soldiers will be hired to make up the shortfall in the standing force's numbers, which will be created as soldiers are discharged earlier. He said the move will improve the mostly conscript force's operational readiness, thanks to the skills and experience that professionals will bring.

"This decision is a significant step toward transforming the National Guard into a modern, semi-professional military," Fokaides said.

Soldiers inducted last summer will only have to serve 18 months. Deputy government spokesman Viktoras Papadopoulos put the number of professionals to be hired at 3,000.

Ethnically divided Cyprus relies heavily on its reserves to bolster its small standing force that faces over 35,000 Turkish troops in the island's breakaway Turkish Cypriot north.

The tiny eastern Mediterranean island with an overall population of 1.1 million was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aiming at union with Greece.

Previous governments had vowed to look at ways of reducing military service but never followed through.

Opposition parties criticized the government, saying the announcement was a ploy to clinch votes ahead of a parliamentary election in May.

Fokaides said the military service reduction is part of a three-pronged approach to modernize the Cypriot military, which also includes new equipment for the island's small naval and air forces.

European Union member Cyprus aims to become a regional search-and-rescue hub in a volatile region and wants to patrol areas off its southern coast where gas deposits have been discovered.