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By Jon Boyle, Reuters
France will host peace talks on Friday between Armenia and Azerbaijan in an effort to resolve a long-running dispute over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the French Foreign Ministry said.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliev will have separate talks with French President Jacques Chirac at his official Elysee Palace residence on Friday before pursuing talks outside the French capital. European diplomats say an end to the 15-year-old dispute, the biggest of the so-called "frozen conflicts" left over from the Soviet Union's messy disintegration, could be in sight.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau declined to say on Wednesday if a global peace treaty was in the offing or whether the parties were just negotiating a road map for further talks.

After meeting Chirac in Paris, the two Caucasus leaders are to travel to a 14th century chateau in Rambouillet, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Paris, for talks set to last through Friday afternoon and Saturday. Chirac was not due to go to Rambouillet, venue for the first summit of leaders of the G7 group of industrial nations in 1975 and also talks that produced a peace deal in the Balkans province of Kosovo in 1999.

It was not immediately clear if Kocharian and Aliev would meet directly or just with French, American and Russian mediators from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who are also taking part.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian told Reuters that "Armenia feels cautious optimism about this meeting. Azerbaijan continues to hold a tough position over this problem and its hard-edged statements make us feel caution. "But let's hope that the two presidents will manage to make a step forward in Paris," he said.

Azeri officials were unavailable for comment but Araz Azimov, Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, said on February 2 there were "some opportunities for progress in the negotiating process," but insisted Nagorno-Karabakh return to Azeri control. "Azerbaijan's patience has some limits. It's not in Armenia's interests to betray Azerbaijan's patience," he said.

Karabakh has caused tension in a region energy-hungry states in Asia and the West see as a vital emerging source of oil. A major pipeline linking Caspian Sea oil fields to world markets passes a few kilometers from the conflict zone.

Diplomats say any agreement will likely involve Armenian forces withdrawing from districts they control around Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for keeping control of the territory itself pending a referendum on its status. It might also include foreign peacekeepers moving into the region. However, any peace deal may crumble under pressure from powerful groups on both sides who will argue their government has given too much ground, analysts say.
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