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By Emil Danielyan
Armenia and Azerbaijan remain “very close” to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict despite the failure of their presidents to cut a framework peace deal during long-awaited talks in France last month, a senior U.S. administration official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Matthew Bryza played down Presidents Robert Kocharian’s and Ilham Aliev’s failure to live up unusually high expectations from their two-day meeting at Rambouillet chateau near Paris.

“I wouldn’t characterize Rambouillet as a failure or agree with anyone who would argue that the process has stopped or that the Minsk Group has run its course,” he told a news conference in Yerevan.

“The sides are very close to a framework or interim agreement,” Bryza said. “But it’s always the last few steps that are the most difficult. The issues that now remain to be resolved are the most difficult ones, the types of issues that require the heads of state to make very tough decisions.”

Bryza would not specify what those issues are, saying only that Washington “will do everything we possibly can to get them to that agreement as quickly as possible.” Kocharian likewise said in a televised interview last week that he and Aliev failed to agree on one unspecified “important principle.”

Sources close to the Rambouillet talks have told RFE/RL that Karabakh’s future status remains the main bone of contention. Aliev explicitly rejected last month the idea of allowing the region’s mainly Armenian population to decide the status in a referendum, which is reportedly at the heart of the international mediators’ most recent peace proposals.

The U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group are scheduled to meet in Washington this week to discuss ways of salvaging the peace process. The chief U.S. negotiator, Steven Mann, has admitted that their failure to broker an agreement this year would keep the conflict unresolved at least until 2009.

The Washington meeting will come on the heels of fresh threats traded by the conflicting parties and deadly skirmishes reported from the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact. Each side has accused the other of violating the ceasefire regime in recent days.

The Azerbaijani military said on Tuesday that one of its soldiers was shot and killed by Armenian forces southeast of Karabakh. An Armenian soldier was reportedly shot dead in another section of the frontline late last week.
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