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By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA (Reuters) - Britain has offered to hand over almost half of its sovereign territory in Cyprus to facilitate a peace deal between the island's estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
The offer is similar to one made by the former colonial power in 2003 and would be conditional on a peace deal between the two sides. Britain has a strategically-located air base on the Mediterranean island, which would not be part of any deal.
"The Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on Cyprus, Alexander Downer, has just been informed that the United Kingdom is renewing an offer to the United Nations to cede a portion of its territory in the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) to a reunified Cyprus," the U.N. said in a statement.
British officials had no immediate comment on the statement.
Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. The long-running conflict is a key source of tension between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and is hindering Turkey's membership talks with the EU.
The Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides started peace talks in September 2008. The British offer is a bid to help a process fraught with difficulties, and which has seen many failures.
"I believe it is an offer to be welcomed as a tangible demonstration of the goodwill and support of the international community to the two leaders in Cyprus in their efforts to reunify the country," Jose Diaz, the United Nations spokesman in Cyprus told Reuters.
BROWN TO MEET CHRISTOFIAS
Prime Minister Gordon Brown was scheduled to meet Cypriot President Demetris Christofias in London on Wednesday.
Britain gave up Cyprus in 1960, but retained two strategic pockets of territory -- on prime undeveloped real estate -- which account for about 3.0 percent of the island's territory.
The offer would be for a handover of 45 square miles, just under half of the 98 square miles (254 sq km) that Britain now controls, the U.N. said.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots are attempting to find a power-sharing formula under a federal system, and settling property disputes from years of partition.
Territorial adjustments, which have in previous peace blueprints been in favour of the numerical majority Greek Cypriots, would be a key element in any deal.
Turkish Cypriots now control some 37 percent of Cypriot territory. The 2003 British offer had been incorporated into a United Nations blueprint rejected by Greek Cypriots in a 2004 referendum.
On the basis of the 2003 offer, most of the territory Britain would have relinquished would have gone to Greek Cypriots in the south of the island.
Only part of the British territory in Cyprus is used exclusively for military purposes. It includes a large number of Greek Cypriot farming communities living under British civilian administration.
The ratio of land ownership within the British bases is 60 percent privately owned, 20 percent is Crown land and 20 percent is owned by the British Ministry of Defence.
Britain's RAF Akrotiri air base has been used in the past as a supply post for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.