Two U.S. State Department officials said Tuesday they were optimistic about the possibility of a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"The two sides are closer to an agreement than they have been in the past," said Matthew Bryza, a State Department European affairs expert. He spoke to a meeting of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which was convened to examine humanitarian suffering in the region a dozen years after the war over Nagorno-Karabakh ended.
Bryza said the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments will have to show political courage to bridge the final gaps. "We look at these next couple of months as a real window of opportunity," he said.
A second State Department official, David Appleton, said one sign of progress is that the Azeri government is asking the U.N. refugee agency to draw up plans for the return of the displaced to their homes once a peace agreement is signed.
Baroness Caroline Cox, the British humanitarian and member of the House of Lords, who has visited Nagorno-Karabakh 60 times, criticized the United Nations for refusing to provide relief to the people of the enclave under its policy of not doing work in "unrecognized territories." She said the policy deprives the suffering people of the region of much-needed aid.
"U.N. organizations working in Azerbaijan have been very vocal on behalf of displaced Azeris but have been silent about Armenians suffering at least as severely," the baroness said. "This asymmetry is unjustifiable," she added. "The Karabakh authorities have made repeated requests for help to the U.N. for assistance, but these have been unsuccessful."
Also on Tuesday, an aide to Azerbaijan's president denied a report that a centuries-old ethnic Armenia cemetery had been destroyed. The report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting said the medieval-period Djulfa cemetery in the exclave of Nakhichevan, which once had thousands of intricately carved crosses, had vanished. The report said its journalist was not allowed by accompanying security forces to go to the cemetery site, but that the journalist was near enough to see the cemetery was gone.
"This is an absolutely lying publication and statement," said Ali Hasanov, an aide to President Ilham Aliev. "Not one cultural-historical monument, not one Armenian cemetery in the Nakhichevan autonomous republic has been destroyed."
The Djulfa cemetery site is generally off-limits because it lies in a security zone along the Iranian border.
Hasanov said the government was ready to work with international commissions to clarify the status of cultural and historical sites, including within Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan accuses Armenians in the enclave and surrounding occupied territories o destroying mosques and Muslim cemeteries.
(Photolur photo: Matthew Bryza.)