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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Negotiators Try New Approach To Karabakh

Vienna, 30 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- International negotiators trying to resolve the long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh are now trying to persuade all sides to accept a step-by-step approach beginning with the withdrawal of Armenian forces from captured Azerbaijani territory.

Officials close to the negotiations said in Vienna this week it was clear that attempts to negotiate a single comprehensive document containing both a military and political settlement had failed. A comprehensive document was proposed earlier this summer by the international mediators, the U.S., Russia and France but failed to win support. A senior western diplomat said in Vienna today : "it now seems clear that the comprehensive approach is dead. A step-by-step approach seems to be the only way to move ahead but this is not going to be easy either." He said the international mediators presented some ideas on how to do this when they visited the region earlier this month but it appeared that some parties were dissatisfied with them." The new ideas suggested that as a first step Armenian forces should withdraw from six Azerbaijani districts captured in the 1993 fighting. This would be followed by withdrawal from two other particularly-sensitive areas which would be turned over to international peacekeeping forces. Another step would see the return of refugees and other confidence-building measures.

The extremely difficult question of a political settlement, which might take years to negotiate, would be left to the final phase..

The negotiations are being conducted by the U.S., Russia and France on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). Diplomats at OSCE headquarters in Vienna said today the immediate goal is to make some progress before a meeting of the organization's foreign ministers in Copenhagen in December.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an predominantly Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Fighting erupted in 1988 when the ethnic Armenians demanded independence. A ceasefire was arranged in 1994 after the Armenia forces captured large areas of Azerbaijan but the OSCE negotiations have made almost no progress towards a political settlement.

A senior U.S. diplomat associated with the negotiations said today that Azerbaijan was the most positive about accepting the proposals in the step-by-step approach. He said was only to be expected because under the present proposals Azerbaijan would benefit from the return of captured territory.

An Armenian foreign ministry official told reporters in Yerevan last week that his country had serious reservations about some aspects of the latest proposals. He said it was too early to speak them as a basis for resuming direct negotiations. There has been no full meeting between the negotiators and the three parties to the dispute since an unsuccessful meeting in Moscow in April.

The U.S. diplomat said the problem for the mediators was that an OSCE summit meeting in Lisbon last December gave Azerbaijan almost everything it wanted but relatively little to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

"The negotiators have to move-on from the Lisbon document," he said. "But it is difficult to reject a document signed by more than 50 heads of Government. A certain amount of time has to pass before the negotiators can move away from it and on to other ideas."

The Lisbon document was approved by all members of the OSCE except Armenia. It said Nagorno-Karabakh should remain part of Azerbaijan but be granted the highest degree of self-rule. Another paragraph offered guarantees for the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and its peoples.

The comprehensive plan proposed by the OSCE mediators earlier this summer followed the Lisbon document in offering the territory autonomy within Azerbaijan but added some arms proposals to help However Nagorno-Karabakh have said repeatedly that their territory will not again become part of Azerbaijan.