By Hrach Melkumian and Karine Kalantarian
U.S. Ambassador John Ordway stopped short Thursday of explicitly confirming or refuting reports that the United States is pushing for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would require an Armenian pullout from occupied Azerbaijani lands before agreement on the disputed region’s status.
Armenian opposition leaders and some media have claimed over the past week that Washington has suggested that Azerbaijan lift its economic blockade of Armenia in exchange for getting back three of its seven districts surrounding Karabakh which were occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-94 war. They said the plan was put forward by Steven Mann, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, during a visit to Yerevan late last month.
The speculation was heightened by Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian’s talks in Washington this week with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush’s top national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice. The U.S. State Department said Karabakh topped the agenda of the talks.
Asked by RFE/RL to comment on the claims, Ordway said: “The [U.S., French and Russian] co-chairs have not made any specific proposals in this most recent round of discussions and negotiations. Normally it’s not my role or responsibility to comment on the work of the co-chairs. So I think that’s the best answer I can provide to you and still not start going into the details of the negotiations, which is not appropriate for me to do.”
“But if [my interpreter] has done his job and you look at it very carefully, I think you will find the answer to your question,” he added without elaborating.
Azerbaijani officials had said earlier that the conflicting parties and the international mediators are discussing the possibility of reverting to the so-called “step-by-step” strategy of conflict resolution, preferred by Baku. Armenian officials have not explicitly denied this, while making it clear that they still stand for a “package” peace accord on all contentious issues, including Karabakh’s status. Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mamedyarov, are scheduled to meet in Prague on June 21 for the third time this year.
Ordway said it is up to the conflicting parties to choose between the package and phased formulas. “Either variant would be fine with us if it produced a settlement,” he said.
The Prague talks will take place against the backdrop of an escalation of tension on the westernmost section of the heavily militarized border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenian military has reported that one of its officers was shot dead in a clash with Azerbaijani forces last week. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry admitted on Wednesday that its troops also sustained casualties.
“But the enemy suffered more,” the ministry spokesman, Ramiz Melikov, told RFE/RL. “We don’t want to talk about numbers. They are not important.” Melikov denied Armenian claims that the Azerbaijani army violated the regime of ceasefire in the area by occupying a hill in a no-man’s land overlooking a major water reservoir in Armenia’s northeastern Tavush region.
But Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, chief of the Armenian army staff, insisted on Yerevan’s version of events according to which Armenian units had to dig in closer to the Azerbaijani positions to forestall any damage to a facility which pumps irrigation water to nearby villages. Harutiunian was due to visit Tavush later on Thursday.
Ordway described the fighting as “very worrisome” and urged both sides to exercise “restraint.”