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Caucasus: Armenian, Azerbaijani Presidents To Meet Next Month Over Karabakh

(RFE/RL) This week's two-day talks between the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia ended on 19 January in London with an announcement that the two countries' leaders would meet next month in France to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute. That will be Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's fifth summit with his Armenian counterpart since his election in October 2003.

PRAGUE, 20 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement was made late on 19 January by Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

"I can now confirm that there will be a new meeting between the two presidents and [that] the French side has already handed the invitations to both presidents," Oskanian said. "The venue and the exact day of the meeting will be finalized by the French side and they should announce [it] soon, [in] the coming days."

France co-chairs the Minsk Group of nations mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate in the talks. Russia and the United States are the other co-chairs.

All three countries have been acting as mediators since 1997, nearly three years after Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to suspend military hostilities.

Predominantly ethnic Armenian Karabakh seceded from then Soviet Azerbaijan in 1988, triggering a war that claimed some 30,000 lives and drove over 800,000 people -- mostly Azeris and Kurds -- from their homes. In addition to Karabakh, Armenian troops are controlling seven Azerbaijani administrative districts next to the breakaway enclave.

The upcoming summit will be the fifth between Armenian President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev. The two leaders met twice in 2004 and twice in 2005.

Commenting on the peace process last month, the Minsk Group co-chairs expressed confidence that the year 2006 would bring the two antagonists closer to a settlement.

Addressing reporters in Yerevan on 15 December 2005 after talks with Kocharian, France's Minsk Group envoy Bernard Fassier said he was hopeful the coming months could be a milestone: "We are convinced that next year, [there will be] a real window of opportunity to achieve some significant progress [toward] a peaceful settlement of the [dispute] elaborated on the basis of what has been already worked out this year."

While voicing optimism, U.S. representative Steven Mann that same day cautioned against too high expectations, saying there was still a long road before achieving anything short of a peace agreement.

"After our meeting with President Kocharian 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."

Oskanian on 19 January expressed similar caution, saying the talks he had in London with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov had "reached their purpose," which was to pave the way for a presidential summit.

Not A Draft Agreement

The Armenian foreign minister said both sides were still working on what he described as a "non paper" that intends to serve as a framework document for future talks: "It is not a draft agreement, let's make that very clear. This is a half-page text where certain principles of the [conflict's] resolution have been articulated and this serves as a guideline for talks between the [foreign] ministers, and also the presidents [of both countries]. Once those principles [will] be agreed [upon], then [they] could serve as a basis for a more detailed document, which eventually could serve as a guiding document for the resolution of the conflict."

Oskanian further hinted that the sides were still far from a consensus on the basic principles of a peaceful settlement, saying he hoped the two presidents would achieve progress on what he and Mammadyarov could not agree upon.

Azerbaijan has not yet commented on the outcome of the London meeting.

Mammadyarov last month said the sides were working on nine basic principles, including one that envisions the deployment of international peacekeepers in parallel with the gradual liberation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories.

In comments posted today on the Day.Az news website, President Aliyev's aide Novruz Mammadov said the deployment of peacekeepers could be decided only in the final stage of the negotiation process.

As for the possibility of Karabakh residents holding a referendum on the political status of the enclave -- an idea that resurfaced recently -- Mammadov made it clear it could not happen before Armenian troops withdraw from the Azerbaijani territories that are currently under their control.

Also on Thursday, Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Safar Abiyev insisted that the international community force Armenia to liberate "all occupied territories," adding that failure to do so "could lead to a resumption of military activities."

Azerbaijani officials have made similar comments in the past, threatening to forcibly retake occupied territories. Political experts both inside and outside the region believe those bellicose statements were meant primarily for domestic consumption.


Click on the map to see an enlarged map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict area.

In February 1988, the local assembly in Stepanakert, the local capital of the Azerbaijani region of NAGORNO-KARABAKH, passed a resolution calling for unification of the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region with Armenia. There were reports of violence against local Azeris, followed by attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. In 1991-92, Azerbaijani forces occupied most of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Armenians counterattacked and by 1993-94 had seized almost all of the region, as well as vast areas around it. About 600,000 Azeris were displaced and as many as 25,000 people were killed before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was imposed in May 1994.

For a complete archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,click here.

Of particular interest:

2005 In Review: Conflicts In Caucasus Still Characterized By Gridlock

Nagorno-Karabakh President Expresses Optimism

Nagorno-Karabakh: OSCE To Unveil New Peace Plan

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