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People cross Ledra's checkpoint of the United Nations patrolled "green line" in Nicosia, Cyprus January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

(reuters_tickers)

By Michele Kambas

ATHENS (Reuters) - The vexed issue of security arrangements in a post-settlement Cyprus took centre stage on Wednesday in talks on the island's future, as officials played down chances of swift progress in a push towards reunification by its Greek and Turkish authorities.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan said last week it should retain troops on the divided island to protect the minority Turkish Cypriot community, a comment that raised hackles in Athens.

A source involved in two days of consultations in Geneva between Greek, Turkish and British technocrats said security was a very difficult issue, adding it might be "too ambitious" to assume a deal on settling security issues as part of establishing a two-state federation was in sight.

"We will try to ... maybe offer some alternatives for the political level to consider," the source - who is close to the Turkish Cypriot delegation - told Reuters on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

A second diplomatic source said one option under consideration was to establish four separate police forces - one for each post-settlement state, one for federal issues and a multinational force.

A former British colony located on the edge of the volatile Middle East, Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974, triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.

The conflict remains a major source of tension between Greece and Turkey, which are fiercely protective of their communities on the island.

Under its 1960 independence treaty, Britain, Greece and Turkey have the status of 'guarantor powers', and the countries' foreign ministers held an inconclusive meeting in Geneva on security issues last week.

They will reconvene once the technocrats have codified the sides' respective positions, possibly by next week, the Turkish Cypriot source said.

GREECE CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Wednesday progress had been made in ending decades of stalemate, but urged Turkey to drop what he called "aggressive rhetoric".

"We will continue to work hard... and hope that we have positive results in the near future," he said in a speech in the Greek parliament.

The Greek side seeks abolition of the guarantor system, accusing Turkey of abusing it through its 1974 invasion and the stationing of some 30,000 Turkish troops in the north. The Turkish side says some form of presence must be maintained to protect the minority Turkish side from a repeat of the turbulent 1960s.

Erdogan last week accused Greece of "fleeing" the Geneva talks and said Turkey should retain troops on the island.

But he has left open the possibility of reverting to initial levels, as defined in the 1960 treaty, of 950 Greek and 650 Turkish troops.

The Greek side wants a withdrawal of up to 75 percent of Turkish forces initially, with a sunset clause for a staggered full withdrawal within a defined period.

Among other ideas being discussed was making the troops' departure subject to a review, or a referendum in Cyprus, the second source said.

(editing by John Stonestreet)

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