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Mediators Hopeful On Karabakh Peace Settlement --> (RFE/RL) Yerevan, 15 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- International mediators helping Armenia and Azerbaijan settle their dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh have said they were hopeful significant progress toward settling the conflict could be reached next year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

French negotiator Bernard Fassier told a press briefing in the Armenian capital Yerevan his optimism stemmed from the fact that neither country will have elections within the next 18 months.

"We are convinced that next year is a real window of opportunity to achieve some significant progress in the direction of a peaceful settlement elaborated on the basis of what has been already worked out this year," Fassier said.

U.S. envoy Steven Mann expressed similar views.

"After our meeting with [Armenian] President [Robert] Kocharian [yesterday], we believe as firmly as ever that events are moving in the right direction. These are very tough negotiations and neither side has ever taken any position that I would characterize as soft," Mann said. "But what you have to understand [and] what gives us hope as negotiators is that even though the sides are very tough-minded in putting their positions forward, we are seeing a desire on the part of each side to look towards an agreement. But that doesn't mean it will be easy."

France and the United States co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group of nations, which was set up in 1996 to help settle the conflict. The other co-chair is Russia.

Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Gukasian on 13 December said after meeting with the three co-chairs that he had taken note of their optimism. However, he said he believed the sides were "quite far from a solution."

Gukasian also criticized the negotiators for not presenting any new proposals.Nagorno-Karabakh is officialy not part of the negotiation process.

Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1988, triggering military hostilities that ended in 1994. But the two sides remain formally at war and an estimated 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory remains under Armenian occupation.