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By Anna Willard, Reuters
President Jacques Chirac urged Armenia and Azerbaijan on Friday to seize the chance offered by Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks in France to sketch out a settlement of the long-running territorial dispute.

Chirac held separate talks with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev at the start of a new effort to break the deadlock over a mountainous territory roughly half the size of the island of Cyprus. Diplomats say the talks, set to continue later Friday in a 14th century chateau southwest of Paris, are the best chance in years of ending two decades of conflict.

Chirac held successive 45-minute discussions with Kocharian and Aliyev at his official Elysee Palace residence in central Paris. Neither visiting leader spoke to waiting reporters. Elysee spokesman Jerome Bonnafont said Chirac had wished the visiting presidents luck in the next phase of the talks, which he hoped would open up new prospects for peace.

"In the current situation there is a chance to lay down the basis of a settlement," Bonnafont quoted Chirac as telling Kocharian and Aliyev. "He (Chirac) assured both presidents of the international community's desire to support peace efforts and the implementation of an accord."

The Armenian and Azeri leaders were later to travel to the Rambouillet chateau outside Paris for one-on-one discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh that could run into Saturday. The chateau hosted Kosovo peace talks in 1999.

European diplomats suggest an end to the dispute, the biggest of the so-called "frozen conflicts" left over from the Soviet Union's messy disintegration, could be in sight. "This is the most important meeting in at least five years regarding this conflict," a senior U.S. State Department official said on Thursday. "We're hopeful."

Armenia's Kocharian said on Wednesday he was cautiously optimistic about talks which aim to set out the principles of a deal. More detailed discussions will come later.

French, American and Russian mediators from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are also taking part in the talks at Rambouillet, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Paris. The Minsk Group was set up to help resolve the dispute. They will meet with the two presidents and then leave them alone for talks.

Diplomats say any accord is likely to 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.

(AP-Photolur photo: Chirac greets Kocharian at the Elysee Palace in Paris before their meeting.)
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