By Armen Dulian
A senior U.S. State Department official will visit Azerbaijan and Armenia next week in a bid to break the deadlock in the internationally sponsored peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh, officials said on Thursday.
A source at the Armenian Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL that Dan Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, is scheduled to arrive in Yerevan from Baku on March 16. The source said Fried will be accompanied by Steven Mann, Washington’s top Karabakh negotiator.
Mann and senior French and Russian diplomats co-chairing the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are meeting in Washington this week to kick-start the negotiating process into life again following last month’s meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. The two leaders held two days of apparently fruitless talks at the Rambouillet palace near Paris, all but dashing hopes for a speedy resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, declined to divulge any details of the co-chairs’ meeting. “Concerning meetings here, I don’t have any information for you,” McCormack told a news briefing in Washington. “But I do know that Ambassador Fried will be traveling out to the region, I believe next week. He will have some meetings in Azerbaijan as well as in Armenia concerning a follow-up to the recent discussions the two presidents had in Rambouillet.”
Fried made a brief mention of the Karabakh conflict on Wednesday as he addressed hearings on U.S. foreign policy organized by a key House of Representatives committee. “We urge the Armenian and Azeri leaderships to seize the moment and help bring the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to a close,” he told the House International Relations Committee.
Fried’s deputy Matthew Bryza was in Yerevan earlier this week, saying after talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian leaders that the conflicting parties remain “very close” to hammering out a framework peace accord. Bryza said Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart have to make “very tough decisions” to reach a peaceful settlement.
The international mediators are seeking to salvage the peace process against the background of more frequent ceasefire violations reported from the westernmost section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in recent days. Each warring side has accused the other of opening automatic gunfire on its positions in the area.
A statement from Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry, cited by the Associated Press, said its forces in five locations were fired on Wednesday by Armenian forces with mortars and gunfire and that the firing halted only after Azerbaijani troops returned fire.
“Truly, the exchanges of fire have become very intense over the past few days. Azerbaijan and Armenia have sustained casualties,” Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev said in separate televised remarks. “The Armenians have always been active. We should be twice as active.”
An Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed the fighting but denied that Armenian forces opened fire. Seyran Shahsuvarian also reported gunfire near the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan.
A warden message released by the U.S. embassy in Yerevan on Thursday advised American citizens residing in Armenia to stay away from the section of a highway in the northeastern Tavush region that runs close to the Azerbaijani border. “The U.S. Embassy has designated this portion of the road off-limits to all U.S. government personnel because it lies too close to the cease fire line between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, a line which has seen numerous cease fire violations over the years,” read the message.