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Azerbaijan Hints At Progress Over Rebel Region

BAKU (Reuters) -- Azerbaijan has hinted at possible progress in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, in unusually positive comments that follow a breakthrough in ties between Armenia and Azerbaijani ally Turkey.

Armenia and Turkey said on August 31 they had agreed to establish diplomatic relations and open their border under a road map to end a century of hostility stemming from the World War I killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

Turkey closed the border in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians backed by Armenia fought to throw off Azerbaijani rule.

Azerbaijan, a supplier of oil and gas to the West, opposes the frontier reopening without progress in resolving the fate of the rebel mountain region. It runs itself with the backing of Armenia but is in an armed standoff with Azerbaijan.

Novruz Mammedov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, repeated on September 3 that the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement was contrary to "national interests".

But he added, "I believe that before the border is opened, there could be movement in resolving the conflict, and certain agreement."

"The main thing is that the opening of the border should not contradict the interests of Azerbaijan, and that certain movement should be achieved in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," he told Azerbaijan's ANS television in comments posted on its website.

"It is necessary for the Turkish side to keep its promises."

Mediators from the United States, France, and Russia have for months said they were close to clinching agreement on the basic principles of a peace deal.

But analysts have been skeptical of a breakthrough in one of the most intractable conflicts in the former Soviet Union.

A cease-fire was agreed in 1994 after an estimated 30,000 people were killed. But a peace accord has never been signed, and ethnic Armenian and Azeri forces continue to face off over a tense frontline.

Armenia and Turkey say they will sign accords on diplomatic ties after six weeks of domestic consultations and submit them to parliament. The border should open within two months of ratification, possibly by New Year.