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Karabakh Leader Demands Role In Peace Talks

Bako Sahakian in July 2007
STEPANAKERT (Reuters) -- The de facto leader of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has demanded a role in forthcoming talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia that diplomats say could yield a breakthrough.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will meet in Russia on July 17 in talks that could open a "new page" in negotiations in the 15-year conflict over the province of 150,000 people, a French mediator said on July 8.

But the region's de facto leader, Bako Sahakian, on July 10 demanded a role in the talks for the rulers of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh in Armenian, saying the current format is "deficient."

"Artsakh, as the main party to the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict, is now out of the negotiations and we should restore this important principle," Sahakian said at a conference in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's main city.

"Without the consent of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh any decision will be impossible to implement," he said.

Ethnic Armenian separatists, backed by Armenia, fought a war to throw off Azerbaijan's control over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An estimated 30,000 people were killed before a cease-fire took effect, and the Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis have never signed a peace accord to end the conflict.

The West is concerned that any new fighting in the region could jeopardize oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijani reserves in the Caspian Sea.

Sahakian, who wants full independence for the enclave, said any attempts to present the province as a part of Azerbaijan would be "incomprehensible and unacceptable."

In recent years Azerbaijan has insisted that Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership not take part in peace talks, arguing that Armenia represents their interests.

Analysts say that even if a deal is reached between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents it could be difficult to sell the necessary compromises to the people of the two countries and those of Nagorno-Karabakh.