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A top U.S. negotiator has warned that time is working against the parties to the Karabakh conflict and mediators to try to reach an agreement in the protracted dispute involving Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Steven Mann, the co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group from the United States, reiterated in an interview with the RFE/RL Azerbaijni Service on Thursday that “2006 is the opportune year for a deal” and that the sides need to complete the serious work which he hopes will result in tangible progress.

“We are continuing our work. The co-chairs remain of the opinion that it is very desirable to get some version of an agreement in 2006, but in the final analysis this depends on the two countries themselves,” the American mediator said.

Mann, who accompanied U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried on a regional tour in the three South Caucasus republics earlier this, said he had shared this vision with the presidents and foreign ministers in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“I don’t want to go into the details of the discussions, but we met with each president and with each foreign minister and we had very thoughtful and detailed discussions in each capital,” he said, without elaborating.

After the regional tour in mid-March the American diplomats left for an OSCE meeting in Istanbul, which Mann says was ‘a convenient place to meet’. “There is no policy significance to the fact that we met in Istanbul,” the American mediator emphasized, answering some statements of dissatisfaction among political circles in Armenia in connection with the choice of that venue. “The Istanbul meeting was a meeting of the co-chairs, and it was designed for me to brief the co-chairs on the trip that Assistant Secretary Fried and I took together to the region.”

Mann called the trip ‘a useful opportunity to discuss Karabakh’ and said that Assistant Secretary Fried plans to pay visits to the region about two or three times a year.

The U.S. negotiator stopped short of revealing any specific plans for meetings, in particular between the two countries’ foreign ministers, on the Karabakh issue in the immediate future.

“We had this discussion in Istanbul. We discussed in general terms what future meetings we might have, but there are no specific plans for any future meetings with the foreign ministers,” he said.

At the same time, he said that Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian will be in Washington next week for the Millennium Challenge Account and Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov will be coming for long-scheduled political military discussions, but he stressed that those travels are not intended to discuss the Karabakh issue.

Commenting on the recent report issued by the International Crisis Group calling for a greater involvement of the European Union in the Karabakh settlement process, Mann reminded that one of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, France, is an EU-member country. “Our French colleague keeps the European Union briefed on developments,” he added.

Considering the OSCE to be the right format for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, Mann repeated that the resolution itself does not depend on the mediators. “Regardless of the format that you choose, it will always come down to the fact that it is up to the two sides to find the common ground in this conflict,” he concluded.
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