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Russia Foresees Breakthrough On Nagorno-Karabakh

A war-ravaged building in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh

A war-ravaged building in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Azerbaijan and Armenia are close to a deal to end the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has said, two decades after fighting broke out in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the former Soviet Union.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are still technically fighting over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians backed by Christian Armenia broke away from Muslim Azerbaijan in a war that cost more than 30,000 lives.

Years of diplomacy by Russia, the United States and France have so far failed to get the two sides to sign a peace deal, but mediators reported progress in talks last month between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told reporters that if the current pace of talks was sustained, a peace deal would be ready soon.

"If the positive pace achieved in the negotiating continued next year, then we can count on a rather swift final agreement of the basic principles for resolution [of the conflict] and the working out of the text for a peace agreement," he told reporters.

Russia is one of the three main international mediators in the peace talks, which are led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk group.

Fighting in the region, which is at the heart of a transit route for oil and gas to the West, broke out in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union headed toward its 1991 collapse.

The war killed some 30,000 people and displaced 1 million. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 and Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent.

Tensions over the disputed region have been rising in recent months, with Azerbaijan angry at a deal between Turkey and Armenia to open their border, 16 years after Ankara closed it in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the war.

Turkey says it will go through with its deal with Armenia only if the latter makes concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh.