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Nagorno-Karabakh Forces 'Committed' To Cease-Fire

YEREVAN -- Military officials in Nagorno-Karabakh have denied violating a cease-fire following a report of casualties by Azerbaijan on February 18, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Military spokesman Senor Hasratian said on February 19 that Stepanakert remains committed to the cease-fire regime along the line of contact with Azerbaijani armed forces.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service quoted the country's Defense Ministry as confirming that three Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and another solder was wounded "after exchanging fire with Armenian armed forces near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region."

The Azerbaijani ministry did not specify where the fighting took place, but a spokesman said the Armenian side also suffered casualties.

Hasratian told RFE/RL that he advised "searching for the causes of the Azerbaijani soldiers' deaths in the [low] morale of the Azerbaijani armed forces." He said allegations of casualties on the Armenian side are "a big lie."

Hasratian added that "the information spread by Azerbaijan once again does not correspond to reality."

He said the names of the dead soldiers published in the Azerbaijani media suggested to him that they were not ethnic Azeris, which he claimed showed Baku's "policies towards ethnic minorities."

Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease-fire agreement in 1994 after three years of fighting as a result of which Karabakh-Armenian forces established control over the former, mostly Armenian-populated region of Soviet Azerbaijan and also expanded to seven districts within Azerbaijan proper.

Skirmishes and shootings are not a rare occurrence along what now is the line of contact between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces, despite the assurances of both sides that they remain committed to the cease-fire.

Iran Calls For Peacekeepers

Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador in Armenia has said Tehran has its own views on what kind of a peacekeeping force should be deployed in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Ambassador Seyed Ali Saghaeyan said at a press conference in Yerevan on February 19 that "Iran shares a common border with Karabakh, and therefore we surely have our own considerations and views about the composition of a peacekeeping force that might be deployed in the conflict zone."

A peacekeeping operation as part of international security guarantees for the region is incorporated in the Karabakh conflict settlement that has been proposed by international mediators.

Saghaeyan did not specify, however, which countries Iran might find unacceptable to participate in such a peacekeeping operation. Nor did he specify what he meant by Iran and Karabakh share "a common border." Saghaeyan
was speaking in Persian through his official interpreter.

Iran borders on three districts of Azerbaijan -- Jabrayil, Fizuli, and Zangilan -- that are outside the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh but have been largely controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since 1994. Those districts are south of Nagorno-Karabakh's former administrative border.

Saghaeyan said Tehran has sought "to promote peace from the very onset of the Karabakh conflict" and reminded that two cease-fires in the conflict were established due in part to Iranian mediation.

The Iranian ambassador also expressed his country's support for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border as envisioned under the two protocols signed by Turkey and Armenia in October.