THEY call themselves the Thin Blue Line, the 1200 British, Argentinian, Austrian, and Hungarian soldiers-cum-diplomats of the United Nations force patrolling the increasingly tense 185-km buffer zone between Greek and Turk across the fractured holiday island of Cyprus.

At its widest point, the zone is seven kilometres deep. At its narrowest, in the shattered maze of backstreets in the old quarter of the capital, Nicosia, the protagonists are separated by just 10ft of dusty alleyway and 2000 years of mutual distrust and hatred.

Roman legionnaries, Turkish Janissaries - the mercenary stormtroopers of the Ottoman Empire - Crusaders, Venetians, and British national servicemen have all walked these streets over the intervening centuries. Now they are eerily deserted, an architectural timewarp frozen along a 1.5 kilometre stretch of what might well qualify as the most heavily fortified urban front line in the world.

When the shooting stopped after the Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island in 1974, frightened conscripts from Ankara and Athens were left facing each other down rifle barrels from loopholed houses, bunkers hacked with entrenching tools from vegetable gardens, and ancient balconies groaning now under the weight of sandbags and twentieth-century machine-gun nests.

As UN troops eased gingerly into the gap to try to prevent a resumption of hostilities, Greek and Turk were under strict orders to hold their fire.

Instead, they reverted to a type of warfare these alleys had seen before, tying knives and bayonets to wooden poles and trying to stab each other through windows across the great, three-metre ethnic divide.

Aggression has, however, gone hi-tech. Instead of shooting each other, Greek and Turk now try to blind the opposition using laser pens. Shouting insults and hurling the occasional rock or bottle is also a regular sport on a quiet day.

Major Hamish de Bretton Gordon, commanding troops from Britain's 1st Royal Tank Regiment in the Sector Two East, covering the old city, says: ''There is still, unfortunately, the odd fatal shooting incident. We are dealing with forces which are largely conscript, and comparatively poorly trained. Insults can quickly lead to an exchange of rocks. Rocks lead to someone becoming angry and cocking a weapon as a threat.

''From that point on, we are a finger squeeze away from loosing off a live round. The Greek National Guard are particularly prone to this kind of accidental discharge. They killed a Turkish soldier just a few months ago.

''Our remit here is to be fair, diplomatic, but robust in our treatment of both sides. Most of the problem is in preventing either side from violating the UN's 1974 ceasefire agreement by strengthening or moving their existing positions.

''To put attitudes in context, a Turkish regimental commander here stated publicly a little while back that if he could shift his side's line forward by just one inch during his two years' duty, then his time on Cyprus would have been worthwhile.

''Our job is to stop them doing that. Quite recently, we deployed 100 men, unarmed, and moved back a line of oil drums the Greek National Guard had positioned a few feet in front of their positions on the edge of Nicosia. Their next step would have been to fill the drums with concrete to create a permanent barrier, roof it over and fortify it into a new bunker line.

''They got excited, a couple of them cocked their rifles and did a bit of shouting. I reminded them that they would be in deep trouble if they shot UN soldiers. One sergeant burst into tears and accused me of ruining his military career. But they finally backed down.''

Major Iain Laver, commanding Sector Two West out along the UN outpost line in the open plain beyond the city, adds: ''We're the guys in black, referees at a football match where the spectators carry assault rifles and have tempers fitted with a short fuse.

''The irony is that many conscripts on both sides are British passport holders, young Greek or Turks of Cypriot parentage who return to the island to do their national service. If push came to shove, we could end up being fired on by British citizens.''

First RTR, recruited from Scotland and Liverpool, has 379 officers and men working on a six-month tour under UN control. The unit is currently based in Paderborn, Germany, where it is about to convert to the new Challenger Two main battle tank. Cyprus is a learning curve in post-Cold War reality for men trained to tackle an enemy head on with heavy firepower and cutting edge technology.

Lieutenant-Colonel David Eccles, the regimental commander, says: ''This is a quantum leap away from the norm for us. It is a true test of command at every level. The loneliest situation in the world can be a confrontation calling for judgment, patience, and discipline from a corporal or private soldier faced with instant aggression and the threat of violence.

''It is finger-in-the-chest responsibility right down the line. Our policy has been to display fairness and firmness. The object of both opposing sides is to erode the UN mandate and exploit weakness. But that tends to tail off when they come up against a unit which displays impartiality and shows itself to be organised and well-balanced.''

The soldiers work a gruelling, nine-day cycle of patrols, observation post duty, and administration. Many spend their limited free time winning hearts and minds.

The regiment recently raised #11,000 for local charities on both sides of the line. A number of individuals also give time and labour to helping out at homes for mentally-handicapped children, one in the Turkish sector

near Kyrenia, and another in the Greek south.

The UN presence has helped keep a sometimes shaky peace on Cyprus for the past 24 years. This summer may well witness the most severe test of all if the Turks carry out their threat to prevent Greek deployment of a new anti-aircraft missile system. The thin blue line might well then become the thin last line of sanity.