(Reuters) - Azerbaijan pressed the United States on Sunday to help solve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the oil-rich country in a bid to ease strains over the territory.
"This is a major problem for us and the major threat to regional security," Azeri President Ilham Aliyev told Clinton as they met in his summer residence overlooking the Caspian Sea.
"We want to find a resolution as soon as possible," he added "Our people are suffering".
Clinton said the United States was committed to ties with Azerbaijan. "The issues that you mention are of importance to us," she said.
In a news briefing with her Azeri counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, Clinton said the United States was ready to help Azerbaijan and Armenia reach an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh.
But she warned: "Ultimately the future of any one nation or the future of this region is up to the people themselves. They have to make the hard decisions."
"The United States cannot resolve the conflicts in this region but we can be a partner and a supporter and an advocate," she told the Azeri foreign minister.
A U.S.-backed push for a rapprochement between Azerbaijan's foe Armenia and its historic ally Turkey has damaged ties between Washington and Azerbaijan, which worries its interests will be hurt by the reconciliation efforts.
Baku in April accused the United States of siding with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that has been under ethnic Armenian control since a 1994 ceasefire in a war, and threatened to "reconsider" its relationship with Washington.
The problem ran so deep that in June Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a letter to Aliyev from President Barack Obama, who said he was aware of the "serious issues in our relationship" but was confident the nations could address them. In the letter, Obama praised Azerbaijan for sending military personnel to serve in Afghanistan and opening its land and air space to help resupply U.S. and NATO forces there.
Since 2001, military aircraft and supply trucks have crossed the country carrying U.S. and NATO forces and equipment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon wants to avoid problems that could slow Obama's 30,000-troop surge.
Azerbaijan is also a significant oil producer and hub on a route for Central Asia and Caspian Sea energy to Europe, bypassing Russia to the north and Iran to the south.
Obama also praised Azerbaijan's commitment to an effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, mediated by the United States, Russia and France, and warned against using force.