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Armenia, Azerbaijan Agree On Exchange of POWs, Remains At Russian Meeting

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, Serzh Sarkisian (right) and Ilham Aliyev (left), earlier this year

YEREVAN -- Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, have agreed on the need for further confidence-building measures in the protracted search for peace in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The territory broke away from Azerbaijan after a bloody war in the 1990s and is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. Today it exists as a de-facto independent state under an uneasy ceasefire, and OSCE-brokered efforts to resolve its status have so far been unsuccessful.

Exchange Agreed

After an October 27 meeting in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders agreed to exchange prisoners-of-war and remains of those killed, and reaffirmed their commitment to finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict at talks in Russia.

Aliyev, Sarkisian, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who hosted the talks, said in a statement that the leaders reaffirmed that "the settlement of the conflict through political and diplomatic means requires further efforts on strengthening the ceasefire regime and confidence-building measures in the military sphere."

It calls the agreed exchange of prisoners-of-war and the return of bodies of those killed in clashes related to the dispute a "first step." It also calls for both sides to be "guided by these approaches in the future, proceeding exclusively from the humanitarian nature of such issues."

The OSCE and International Committee of the Red Cross are expected to facilitate the exchanges.

The statement also said that the presidents reiterated their commitment to the declaration they signed in Moscow in November 2008. At that meeting, the first between the three leaders, the presidents issued a formal pledge of their commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict on the basis of the OSCE-drafted principles.

However, gripes over the so-called Madrid Principles have continued to stymie the resolution efforts.

Clashes Resume

Speaking after the talks, Medvedev said there was cause for hope that a version of the principles acceptable to both Armenia and Azerbaijan could be reached by December.

The Russian head of state said, "We have come a certain way, which gives grounds to hope that if the sides work well over the next month ... then by the time of OSCE summit in Kazakhstan on December 1 and 2 we could reach an agreed variant of common regulation principles."

The three leaders' meeting came amid intensified armed clashes around the disputed region. On the eve of the talks, Armenia accused Azerbaijani forces of killing an ethnic Armenian soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh in a bid to disrupt peace talks.

Earlier, Yerevan said Baku still holds the body of an Armenian captive who died under disputed circumstances in Azerbaijani custody earlier this month.

Officials in Baku, meanwhile, have been seeking the return of the body of an Azerbaijani soldier killed in a firefight in Karabakh a few months ago.

The last time Medvedev hosted a meeting between Sarkisian and Aliyev was on June 17, and just over 24 hours later, a major ceasefire violation occurred on the line of contact between the Azerbaijani and Karabakh-Armenian armed forces.

Four Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier were reportedly killed in the firefight.

Volatile Situation

The situation around Karabakh has remained volatile since that incident, with skirmishes reported regularly. Both sides have suffered more than a dozen confirmed military casualties in recent months.

According to information provided by the Armenian president's press service, Sarkisian laid flowers at Astrakhan's khachkar, a traditional Armenian carved stone that bears the image of a cross, ahead of the talks.

The stone was erected in the Russian city in the 1930s in the place of a destroyed Armenian church from the early 18th Century.

The spiritual leader of Astrakhan's Armenian St. Hripsime church, representatives of the local authorities, as well as members of the local Armenian community reportedly accompanied Sarkisian.

Meanwhile, Aliyev attended the opening of a monument dedicated to his late father Heydar, who served as Azerbaijan's president from 1993 to 2003.

RFE/RL Armenian Service's Galina Markina contributed reporting from Astrakhan