By Desmond Butler, The Associated Press
Armenia and Azerbaijan have made substantial progress toward a settlement on control of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the chief U.S. mediator in the talks said.
After more than a decade of efforts by international mediators to broker a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents are close to solving most remaining obstacles to an agreement on basic principles, according to Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.
President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan and Armenian President Robert Kocharian are expected to focus on the sticking points during talks in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 9.
"If the St. Petersburg meeting is successful, then the number of differences remaining on basic principles could be reduced to close to zero," Bryza told The Associated Press.
Diplomats from the so-called Minsk group of mediators from Russia, France and the United States have in the past expressed optimism toward breakthroughs on the difficult dispute only to see negotiations turn backward.
Despite signs of progress in the talks, tensions in the region remain high. Azerbaijan has been building up its military as its economy has boomed from oil revenues at one of the fastest clips of any in the world. It controls portions of the Caspian Sea, on its eastern fringe, which has some of the largest oil and gas fields in the former Soviet Union.
Bryza would not identify the unresolved issues, but he outlined some of the basic principles already reached for a potential resolution. The two sides have agreed on the return of districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that are also under ethnic Armenian control.
Bryza would not say whether there is an agreement on the return of refugees to the region or on any compensation for those who fled the territory.
A public statement in early May by Aliev that the two countries had agreed that refugees could return provoked an angry denial from Armenian officials.
Negotiators have agreed that a settlement would stipulate that a vote would be held in the future on the territory's status, but they have not yet agreed on the timing of the poll or the details of who would be entitled to vote. An international peacekeeping force would be present during the interim period before the vote, and a land corridor would be established from the territory to Armenia, open to ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Bryza praised the two sides for making progress on an issue that stirs passions within both countries. "The leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan should be lauded for their courage in trying to bring stability and prosperity to their peoples," he said.