Azeri Leader Urges Turkey to Stand Firm on Armenia

ANKARA (Reuters)–Azerbaijan expects Turkey to keep its border with Armenia closed for as long as the dispute over the Karabagh region remains unresolved–the Azeri leader said in an interview published on Tuesday.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev began a state visit to Turkey–an old ally–on Tuesday. His trip coincides with pressure on Ankara from some officials in the United States and the European Union to lift its trade blockade of tiny–landlocked Armenia.

Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia because the Christian former Soviet republic occupies Karabagh–a territory populated by ethnic Armenia’s but assigned to Turkic-speaking–mainly-Muslim Azerbaijan in Soviet times.

"Some big powers may try to achieve their interests by putting pressure (on Turkey over opening its border)," Aliyev told the Turkish daily Zaman. "Turkey is a big country. We believe it will not give in to this pressure."

About 35,000 people died in six years of fighting over Karabagh which ended in a 1994 ceasefire. A decade of diplomatic efforts by the United States–France–and Russia to end the deadlock has so far failed.

Turkey hopes to open talks on joining the EU soon.

There had been speculation of a thaw in Azeri-Armenian ties after the death last December of Aliyev’s father–Heydar Aliyev–who had dominated Azeri politics for three decades.

But Ilham Aliyev–elected president last October–signaled there would be no change in his Karabagh policy.

"UNCONDITIONAL" WITHDRAWAL

"We want the occupying Armenia’s to give back our lands unconditionally. Then we can negotiate on the status of Karabagh," Aliyev told Zaman.

He added Azerbaijan would never accept Armenian deman’s for Karabagh’s union with Armenia or for independence from Baku.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer–welcoming Aliyev to Ankara–said Turkey backed a swift resolution of the Karabagh conflict.

"We are ready to make every effort possible to help our Azeri brothers… towards solving the Karabagh problem through peaceful means–in line with the principles of international law," the state Anatolian news agency quoted Sezer as saying.

As well as international pressure–Ankara has faced lobbying from Turkish business interests keen to trade freely with Armenia. But Turkish diplomats say Ankara will not act without the agreement of Azerbaijan.

Apart from close linguistic and cultural ties–Turkey and Azerbaijan will be linked in the near future by an oil pipeline pumping crude from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

The 1,760-km (1,100-mile) Baku-Ceyhan pipeline–built by an international consortium and strongly backed by the United States–is worth around $3 billion. "More than half of the oil pipeline has now been completed," Aliyev told Zaman–adding work was also progressing well on a natural gas pipeline from the Caspian to Turkey and Greece.

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