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By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian

Official Yerevan vehemently denied on Saturday Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev’s claims that it had agreed last year to swap its southeastern Meghri district for a strip of land linking Armenia to Karabakh.

A senior Armenian source told RFE/RL that under a deal agreed by Aliev and President Robert Kocharian in Paris Azerbaijan’s Lachin district would become an internationally recognized part of Armenia, while Baku would be guaranteed only unfettered communication with its Nakhichevan exclave via Meghri.

Aliev claimed on Friday that the deal envisaged an equal exchange of territories between the two conflicting countries. He said it was part of a broader framework agreement to settle the Karabakh conflict which was brokered by French President Jacques Chirac in Paris in March 2001.

“It was stated during the discussions that Meghri would be under the sovereign control of Azerbaijan, while the Lachin corridor would be under Armenia’s control," Turan news agency quoted Aliev as telling a visiting French negotiator in Baku. He went on to accuse the Armenian side of backtracking on those agreement during the subsequent peace conference on the Florida island of Key West.

The spokesman for Kocharian, Vahe Gabrielian, shrugged off the claims, saying that they “should not be taken seriously.” “As a person who participated in the Key West talks, I can state for certain that the claims about the Republic of Armenia giving up sovereignty over parts of its territory or agreements on a sovereign Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan corridor are a nonsense,” Gabrielian told RFE/RL.

“It is Azerbaijan that scrapped the agreements,” he said. “In order to understand how credible Heydar Aliev’s statements are, one should only recall that he had been stubbornly denying the very existence of the Paris principles for more than a year.”

An Armenian source close to the negotiating process said the agreed territorial arrangements were “asymmetrical” ones, allowing the Azerbaijanis only to “use the Meghri road” for communicating with Nakhichevan. By contrast, he claimed, the Lachin district, which has been controlled by the Karabakh Armenians for the past ten years, would become a “sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia.”

The source, who asked not to be identified, also said that the so-called “Paris principles” of the Karabakh settlement were “formalized in a document at Key West” and that the Armenian government will now seek international mediators’ consent to make it public and prove that Aliev “distorted” facts. “This is a great opportunity for Yerevan to publicize that document,” he told RFE/RL.

Azerbaijani leaders have until now strongly denied that any far-reaching agreements were reached at the Paris talks. “We simply discussed various options in Paris, but we did not come to any firm decision,” Aliev had told reporters in Baku on August 4, 2001. “Also, there were issues that at one time I said were acceptable, but now I say that they are not. So this is a process and there are no principles anywhere - neither in Paris, Key West, nor on a border in Nakhichevan.”

For his part, Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev had described the Paris principles as “yet another Armenian myth created with the aim of avoiding responsibility for the breakdown of talks.” “The Paris principles do not exist,” he told Turan in July 2001. “During the meeting of Aliev and Kocharian in Paris with the participation of Jacques Chirac, there was just an exchange of opinions. No agreements were reached there.”

Nevertheless, Aliev admitted on Friday the Paris principles do exist, but said the Armenians have “violated” them at Key West in April 2001.

But according to the Armenian source, the opposite was the case, with Aliev unexpectedly demanding after the Florida talks that Meghri, which is Armenia’s sole conduit to Iran, become part of Azerbaijan. “The entire process collapsed because after Aliev returned to Baku from Key West he demanded that the Meghri and Lachin arrangements be symmetrical,” he said.

The French, Russian and U.S. mediators leading the OSCE’s Minsk Group announced at the end of the Key West conference that Armenia and Azerbaijan are as close to signing a peace deal as ever. However, they sharply toned down their optimism after meeting the 78-year-old Azerbaijani leader in Baku in May 2001, cancelling what was supposed to become a conclusive Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in Geneva next month.

Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have since repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of backtracking on its pledges. Armenian officials have insisted that a comprehensive peace deal offered by the mediating troika upheld Karabakh’s de facto independence from Azerbaijan and overland link with Armenia proper.

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani opposition and many independent media on Saturday condemned Aliev for his latest revelation, according to Turan. Tofik Zulfugarov, the former foreign minister, said that Baku can not cede any part of its internationally recognized territory to the Armenians without a nationwide referendum. He also said that Aliev’s regime was “insincere” toward the domestic public when it denied the Paris principles.

Isa Gambar, the leader of the opposition Musavat party, accused Aliev of “deceiving the nation” and spoke out against the exchange of territories. Another Musavat leader, Sulhaddin Akper, said Baku should instead press the international community to recognize Armenia as an “aggressor country.”

In Yerevan, presidential spokesman Gabrielian said he was surprised with Aliev’s comments. He said: “I wonder what prompted him to make such a statement. After all, the [peace] principles agreed in Paris and put on paper in Key West…will one day be publicized.”
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