NICOSIA (Reuters) - A senior United Nations official says ethnically-split Cyprus has a "historic opportunity" to reunite in 2017 and a meeting in Geneva in early January will be crucial for a peace deal that has eluded the island for decades.
Eighteen months of intensive talks between the estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities will culminate at meetings in Geneva starting on Jan. 8.
Espen Barth Eide, the U.N. Secretary General's Special Adviser on Cyprus, wrote in the Cyprus Weekly newspaper that Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci had demonstrated political will and leadership to end the conflict.
"They recognize that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable, and that the current talks offer the best opportunity for a solution," said Eide, a former Norwegian foreign minister.
"The island stands on the cusp of reaping real political and economic benefits not only for Cypriots, but also beyond the island across the wider region," he added. "The peaceful reunification of the island next year could offer a historic opportunity to finally turn the page of history in Cyprus."
The eastern Mediterranean island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 prompted by a brief coup engineered by the military then ruling Greece. The Greek Cypriots now live south of a ceasefire line and Turkish Cypriots to the north of it.
From Jan. 8, the two sides will try to clear up overhangs in issues relating to economy, property, governance and EU issues. Territorial trade-offs are expected to be discussed on Jan. 11.
Representatives of Britain, Turkey and Greece - the guarantor powers of the former British colony - will discuss their roles at a conference starting in Geneva the next day.
This guarantor status, which permits intervention to restore a breakdown of constitutional order, is a source of discord between the two Cypriot communities.
Fearful of a repeat of the 1974 invasion, the Greek Cypriot side says no guarantees are required once Cyprus is reunited while Turkish Cypriots, who withdrew into enclaves in the 1960s and were targeted by Greek Cypriot nationalists, say they are.
A previous peace bid on Cyprus collapsed in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected, and Turkish Cypriots accepted a blueprint drafted by the UN in a strategy then of 'filling in the blanks' of a deal where the two sides failed to agree.
Negotiations continued on and off since then, picking up in mid-2015 to lead to the meetings due next month.
This time talks are led by the two communities, with the UN acting as facilitators in the process.
(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Tom Heneghan)