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By Harry Tamrazian in Paris
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have all but dashed hopes for an imminent resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, failing to reach agreement during two days of intensive negotiations in Paris which international mediators hoped would produce a breakthrough.

The American, French and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group are due to meet in Washington early next month to discuss the future of the protracted negotiating process that now looks uncertain. They had sounded unusually upbeat about prospects for a peaceful settlement ahead of the summit at the Rambouillet chateau near Paris and did not hide their disappointment with its outcome.

"Despite intense discussions the positions of the parties on certain sensitive principles have remained identical to those they have had over past months," the troika said in a statement issued after the talks ended in failure on Saturday. "However the presidents, who very much appreciated the process under way, have given instructions to their ministers ... to explore new ways for a future settlement," the statement added vaguely.

The mediating team’s U.S. co-chair, Steven Mann, looked weary and exhausted as he spoke with several reporters separately. “There were, I think, good personal atmospherics between the two presidents and the discussions did not result in a substantial change of the positions that the parties have held for months,” he said.

Mann said he and the other two co-chairs -- Bernard
Fassier of France and Yury Merzlyakov of Russia -- will travel to Brussels on Monday to brief the OSCE’s current chairman-in-office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht, on the failed discussions. They will then meet in Washington in early March to decide “in which direction we should move,” added Mann.

“The principal issues have not been resolved, they still need to be negotiated,” Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told Azerbaijani ANS television on Sunday. “It is not known yet what options will be discussed in the future and whether there will be a need for meetings between the foreign ministers.”

Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian appeared as close to hammering out a framework peace deal as ever while they went into the talks on Friday after meeting separately with French President Jacques Chirac. The latter said through a spokesman afterwards that there is a “chance to lay down the basis of a settlement” at the 14th century formal residence of French monarchs. De Gucht expressed similar hope during a visit to Yerevan and Baku late last month.

A source close to the weekend negotiations told RFE/RL that they collapsed due to disagreements over two key points relating to Karabakh’s future status and a timeframe for Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar, a mountainous district sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia proper. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Armenians want to continue to control Kelbajar up until a referendum on Karabakh’s status, whereas Aliev insisted on its earlier liberation.

The idea of holding such a referendum in Karabakh was at the heart of the peace formula discussed by the conflicting parties over the past year, and the Azerbaijani side reportedly accepted it in principle. Mammadyarov’s comments suggest, however, that last-minute disagreements blocked agreement on the conflict’s main stumbling block, with Baku apparently insisting on Karabakh’s return under Azerbaijani rule.

“Azerbaijan's territorial integrity should be observed and the displaced persons should return. Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan,” Mammadyarov said. But he added that agreement was reached on seven other unspecified points of the framework accord.

Kocharian and other Armenian officials declined to immediately comment on the situation, heading straight to Paris airport from Rambouillet. “We have nothing special to say at this point,” Kocharian’s spokesman, Victor Soghomonian, told RFE/RL in Yerevan on Monday. “Yet another round of negotiations is over. There is an agreement to continue negotiations, which is positive in itself.”

The next few weeks should clarify whether the mediators can salvage the formula currently under discussion or will have to again restart the peace process from scratch. They warned earlier that failure to sign a Karabakh accord this year would delay the conflict’s resolution at least until 2009 as both Armenia and Azerbaijan plan to hold national elections in 2007 and 2008.

(AP-Photolur photo)
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