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Religious Leaders Call For Sniper Withdrawal In Nagorno-Karabakh

A checkpoint on the frontier between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (file photo)
A checkpoint on the frontier between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (file photo)
YEREVAN -- The leading religious leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia have called for a withdrawal of snipers from the front lines in the disputed breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh to stop bloodshed amid more reported casualties in the conflict zone, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Russian Patriarch Kiril read out a statement that he made jointly with Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church; and Azerbaijan's top Shi'a Muslim leader, Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, at the end of a meeting in Yerevan on November 21 held as part of a summit of top clerics from post-Soviet countries.

Armenian and international mediators have repeatedly called for a bilateral withdrawal of snipers to reduce deadly cease-fire violations reported along the Armenian-Azerbaijani "line of contact" in Karabakh on a regular basis and blamed by both sides on each other.

The military authorities in Armenia and Karabakh reiterated their readiness to withdraw snipers from the frontline positions following the reported deaths of two Armenian soldiers near Karabakh on November 19-20 by what Stepanakert described as sniper fire from Azerbaijani army positions.

They stressed, however, that they cannot withdraw unilaterally.

At the same time, the military in Armenia vowed to retaliate to discourage further sniper activity in the conflict zone. Karabakh's ethnic Armenian army reported seven killed or wounded in the Azerbaijani army in the past week, describing the casualties as resulting from their troops' "punitive actions." Azerbaijan has confirmed only one death.

Talking to the media over the weekend, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian underscored that the responsibility for future losses in the Azerbaijani army lies with Azerbaijan's authorities.

Sarkisian also attended the proceedings of the religious summit in Yerevan on November 21, calling for a Karabakh conflict settlement to be achieved "through contacts, negotiations, and cooperation rather than through the escalation of tensions and threats."

"We were ready to stretch our hand of friendship first even at the time when we weren't sure that we would get an adequate answer," said Sarkisian, reaffirming Armenia's commitment to solve the conflict through negotiations being mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group.

Sarkisian also warned against giving the conflict an ethnic dimension and pitting the predominant religions in the two states -- Christianity and Islam -- against each other.

In this context, he also called unacceptable the destroying of historical, cultural, and spiritual monuments under the guise of religious differences.

"In front of this prominent audience, on behalf of the Republic of Armenia, I reaffirm our commitment to conserve and, if necessary, restore all such values," Sarkisian said.

The Armenian leader had left the premises before the floor was given to Azerbaijan's top Shi'a cleric, who also addressed the Karabakh issue in his speech. Russian Patriarch Kirill explained that Sarkisian had other scheduled meetings and could not stay till the end of the meeting.

In his remarks referring to conflicts, Pashazade said that "millions of people have to live as refugees" in the former Soviet space, including in the Caucasus.

"We fully support the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group and the presidents of our states," he said. "At the same time, we have to say that, unfortunately, until today the United Nations Security Council resolutions [reaffirming Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and demanding a withdrawal of Armenian forces] have not been fulfilled and the longstanding efforts of the Minsk Group cochairs have not yielded tangible results."

Armenia-backed ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh broke free of Baku's control following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a three-year war between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces followed. The hostilities ceased due to a Russia-brokered cease-fire.

The war and earlier ethnic tensions in Azerbaijan and Armenia displaced hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Azerbaijanis. The military phase of the conflict also resulted in ethnic Armenians remaining in control of most of Karabakh as well as some surrounding territories.

Negotiations since then -- mediated by the American, Russian, and French cochairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group -- have resulted in little progress in resolving the dispute.

The religious leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia issued a joint declaration in April 2010 when the Armenian pontiff paid a landmark visit to Baku to attend a summit of religious leaders from around the world. Then, they also voiced support for the long-running efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict and condemned "acts of vandalism" committed in the conflict zone.

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