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Armenia: U.S. Closely Follows Developments In Caucasus

U.S. efforts to ease tensions in the volatile Caucasus region remain seriously challenged after a week that saw the assassinations of Armenia's prime minister and seven other top officials, as well as Russia's ongoing military action in Chechnya. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports from Washington

Washington, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is pledging continued moral and financial support to the government and people of Armenia in the wake of Wednesday's attack by gunmen in Parliament.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott returned to Yerevan from Moscow on Friday to demonstrate continued U.S. support for President Robert Kocharian as he begins the process of forming a new government.

Kocharian has said he will appoint a new prime minister shortly after funerals on Sunday for Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and seven other top politicians.

State Department spokesman James Rubin had no formal update on Talbott's talks, but he told reporters on Friday that Talbott made clear that the U.S. plans to continue existing and future aid to Armenia.

"We've requested $71 million for fiscal year 2000. We are the largest provider of aid to Armenia, (comprising) roughly 52 percent of their recorded assistance. This provides assistance in drafting their civil code, in professionalizing their legal sector, in their judges and lawyers, in bank training, and in support to the central bank of Armenia in loan programs. So, this is something that we are going to continue."

U.S. President Bill Clinton said the United States has developed strong ties with Armenia and will continue to help maintain democracy there.

Initial speculation is that Wednesday's attack was intended to derail peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. But U.S. officials quickly ruled that link out.

Rubin yesterday said it will clearly be harder now for Armenia and Azerbaijan to move forward on their long-standing dispute, but he said the U.S. cautions against predicting a long-term setback for Karabakh peace prospects.

The largest community of Armenians living outside their homeland reside in the western U.S. state of California and number around 450,000. Vicken Sonentz-Papazian is the executive director of the western region of the Armenian National Committee. She is quoted by The New York Times newspaper as saying this week's news hit the community hard.

In the same article, U.S. Congressman James Rogan, also from California, recalled meeting Sarkissian when the prime minister visited Washington three weeks ago. Rogan -- who himself visited Armenia last month -- called Sarkissian a "patriot" who cared deeply about the cause of independence.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said she will confer this week in Oslo with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on the Armenian situation, as well as on the Chechen conflict. She has said the United States wants to try to make sure the former Soviet Union does not become an area for terrorism.

On Friday, Albright met Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo for talks on Chechnya and counter-terrorism.

State Department spokesman James Rubin later told reporters that Albright came away from the roughly hour-long meeting in Washington no more convinced than before that Russia's current military campaign in Chechnya will lead to a peaceful settlement.

"Secretary Albright was profoundly troubled about the strategy underlining Russia's actions in Chechnya and the fact that there did not seem to be an exit to a political solution. She heard out the minister during a lengthy presentation about their reasons for their action and the actions that they are taking. Following that presentation, she remains deeply troubled and concerned by their strategy." Rubin said Albright continues to urge a political, rather than military, solution to the conflict.

Officials in Moscow have characterized the campaign in Chechnya as a "counter-terrorist" operation.

Rubin said on Friday that the United States does not doubt that Russia faces a terrorist threat in Russia. He cited the recent bombing of a Moscow apartment building and armed attacks against what he called lawful authorities in Dagestan as evidence. But Rubin said the U.S. does have a practical concern with respect to the manner in which Russia is going about trying to resolve the problem.

Numerous U.S. officials have urged Russia to recall the results of their 1994-1996 campaign in Chechnya.