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Armen Dulian in Prague
Senior diplomats from the United States, Russia and France held talks with Azerbaijani leaders in Baku on Friday in a new round of shuttle diplomacy that will also take them to the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh capitals. The three co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group on Karabakh met with President Heydar Aliev at the start of their last regional tour before next month's crucial Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks in Geneva.



"Peace is less of a dream now and can be seen on the horizon," US envoy Carey Cavanaugh declared during a one-hour meeting with Aliev in front of reporters before the two sides retired for confidential talks. "The purpose of the troika's trip is to move the peace process forward and prepare for peace," AFP quoted him as saying.

Aliev, for his part, called for "new steps" from international mediators resolve the Karabakh conflict. He urged the mediators to exert pressure on the Armenian side to speed up the peace process.

The troika is due to meet Karabakh leaders in Stepanakert on Saturday after crossing the line of contact separating the two conflicting armies. The co-chairs will arrive in Yerevan on Sunday on the last leg of the trip.

The visit comes amid high expectations of a long-awaited breakthrough in the international efforts to broker a solution to one of the most intractable ethnic disputes in the former Soviet Union. The mediators are expected to submit new peace proposals on Karabakh at the next round of negotiations between Aliev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian. The talks are scheduled for mid-June in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the depth of the divide separating the two sides was again
brought to light on Friday when Baku called for the expulsion of Yerevan from the Collective Security Treaty between Russia and five other former Soviet republics. "We urge the signatories to the collective security treaty to suspend Armenia's participation and not to agree any aid or military support to this aggressive state," Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiev told a meeting with counterparts from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

However, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, also present at the
meeting, told reporters that such an action would be "incorrect."
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