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Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld meeting with Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian in Washington on March 20


By Emil Danielyan

The United States announced on Friday the formal lifting of nine-year-old arms sales restrictions against Armenia and Azerbaijan, in a further sign of its growing involvement in the South Caucasus. Washington said the previous day that it will provide $4.4 million in military assistance to Azerbaijan -- roughly as much as it has pledged to Baku’s arch-rival Armenia.

The announcement came one week after senior Pentagon officials agreed with their Armenian counterparts on how to use the $4.3 million aid package to Armenia. The U.S. Congress allocated it last November, in an apparent effort to allay Armenian fears over the suspension of the decade-long ban on direct American assistance to Azerbaijan.

The temporary lifting of Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support allowed the administration of President George W. Bush to embark on military cooperation with Azerbaijan as part of its global anti-terror campaign.

A Pentagon delegation led by Mira Ricardel, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia Policy, and Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev signed a statement on military cooperation after talks in Baku on Thursday, agency reports said. At the signing ceremony, Ricardel said that overall, the military assistance to Azerbaijan "can be viewed as part of the fight against terrorism."

"The goal of our security cooperation is to counter threats such as terrorism, to promote peace and stability in the Caucasus, and to develop trade and transport corridors," she told reporters there.

Ricardel said that the United States and Azerbaijan agreed to focus on peacekeeping, improving the security of Azerbaijan's coastal borders, and bringing its air traffic control systems up to NATO standards. She said that assistance with border protection will help prevent the flow of drugs and weapons through Azerbaijan.

Ricardel signed a similar agreement with Armenian Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian in Washington last week. It was the main publicized result of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s official visit to the United States. Sarkisian said earlier this week that the American money will mainly be spent on the training of Armenian military personnel and the modernization of the Armenian army’s communication facilities.

Armenian officials played down late last year the freeze on U.S. sanctions against Azerbaijan, saying that it will lead to “very limited” assistance to Baku. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said in October that Washington will only help Azerbaijan train its security services and protect its borders against “infiltration” by radical Islamist groups.

The U.S. Senate had allowed the Bush administration to waive Section 907 if that helps its anti-terror drive and is not used for “offensive purposes” against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, AFP reported on Friday that the two Caucasus states, still locked in a bitter dispute over Karabakh, have been officially removed from the list of countries barred from purchasing U.S. defense equipment, including munitions, or military training under the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

"This action is being taken in the interests of foreign policy and national security," said a notice published in the Federal Register.

The move formalized a temporary waiver of the sanctions issued in January by Bush. The lifted sanctions had automatically barred the sales of U.S. equipment such as firearms, ammunition, armored vehicles and related technology, as well as training, cryptography devices and protective clothing. The removal of Armenia and Azerbaijan from the list does not result in blanket approvals for all munitions sales to the countries but rather ended a policy under which such transfers were automatically denied.

With the removal of Armenia and Azerbaijan, nine countries remain on the ITAR list: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Vietnam.
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