STEPANAKERT, (AFP) - The ill health of Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliev could lead to a return of hostilities over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, its leader has warned.
Arkady Ghukasian, president of the self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, said a more war-like regime could emerge in Azerbaijan if 78-year-old Aliev, recovering from surgery in a US clinic, leaves office.
"While Aliev is there, there is stability in Azerbaijan. The lack of Aliev could lead to the destabilization of the situation," Ghukasian told AFP in an interview in the enclave's main city.
"We have several times witnessed similar things in Azerbaijan, when they nearly had a civil war, and that destabilization could provoke some military solutions (over Karabakh)."
Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population went to war with Azerbaijan in 1989 after the enclave declared itself independent from Azerbaijan. The conflict left thousands dead and displaced over a million people from their homes.
Aliev brokered a ceasefire in 1994 but Azerbaijani officials have threatened they will go to war if it is necessary to get back their territory.
Ghukasian said Karabakh has no wish to go to war and that he believes no reasonable Azerbaijani politician will resume hostilities.
But he added: "Taking into account the various processes that are going on in Azerbaijan, we are forced to strengthen our defense capabilities because we do not have the right to approach it any other way. There is a saying: if you want peace, get ready for war."
Aliev has no clear successor, leading to speculation that more hawkish forces could come to power once he is gone.
The Azerbaijani president underwent prostate surgery on February 14 at a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. He previously underwent heart bypass surgery, and an operation for eye cataracts.
Officials insist he is making a good recovery, is in daily contact with officials and will be returning to Azerbaijan soon.