A team of international negotiators met with senior Nagorno-Karabakh
officials in Stepanakert on Saturday after making their first-ever crossing of the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline along the eastern edge of the disputed territory. Senior diplomats from France, Russia and the United States held talks with the defense and foreign ministers of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republics on the second leg of their regional tour that follows progress in their recent peace efforts.
A spokeswoman for Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasian, who is currently in France, told RFE/RL by phone that the meeting held behind closed doors discussed ways of ending the 13-year conflict with Azerbaijan and obstacles to a peaceful settlement. She gave no details.
The three co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group -- France's Philippe de
Suremain, Russia's Nikolay Gribkov and Carey Cavanaugh of the US -- earlier in the day crossed on foot the line of contact separating the warring sides to make their way to Karabakh.
"Our hope is that as peace approaches, these roads will be opened for
international assistance," Cavanaugh said in a brief speech before the crossing. "It's important. We've got both countries ready for peace," Agence France Press quoted him as saying.
The talks in Stepanakert were followed by another visit to the frontline, with the mediators attending a regular OSCE monitoring of the cease-fire regime, in force since May 1994. The troika visited the 13th century Gandzasar monastery, a masterpiece of medieval Armenian architecture, on its way back to the Karabakh capital.
The diplomats were in Baku on Friday, meeting with President Heydar Aliev and other top officials. They left the Azerbaijani capital the next day in a convoy of vehicles for a refugee camp in Aghjabedi, which local authorities say houses some 35,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the conflict.
The co-chairs were due to proceed to Armenia on Sunday for further talks with the leadership in Yerevan. The trip will start from a tour of the country's northern regions devastated by the 1988 earthquake. International assistance for economic reconstruction in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh is seen by the mediators as a major incentive for the parties to achieve a compromise settlement. It is expected that a hefty aid package would be part of peace proposals to be unveiled next month in Geneva.
Cavanaugh said in Baku that an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal is "less of a dream now and can be seen on the horizon." His Russian counterpart Gribkov, however, cautioned on Saturday against "excessive hopes" for imminent peace. He said there are "many major issues solutions to which will not be easy to find," according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
The Karabakh issue was on the agenda of Friday's meeting in Washington between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Powell said they "reviewed the effort to promote a peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan." Cooperation between Washington and Moscow is seen as vital for the success of the effort.
Emil Danielyan in Prague