Key West Talks Launched

WASHINGTON (Reuters)–At the invitation of US Secretary of State Colin Powell–President Kocharian has arrived in the United States for another round of talks in a bid to find a peaceful solution to the protracted Armenian-Azeri dispute. Talks with President Kocharian are to begin today in Key West–Florida–under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)–who formed the Minsk Group–chaired by the United States–France and Russia–to try to bring peace to Karabakh.

Azeri President Heydar Aliyev made optimistic commen’s about the Karabakh conflict on Sunday–April 1–but saw a long road to peace as he left for the United States. "I have heard the opinion of the co-chairmen of the Minsk Group of the OSCE that the sides in the conflict are closer than ever to peace. I think there is a basis for these optimistic statemen’s," Aliyev told reporters.

Aliyev added that any solution would have to be implemented over several stages–and dismissed suggestions that he and Kocharian would sign any treaties at the Florida talks. "Most of all Azerbaijan and Armenia must agree on the principles," he said "and there are many questions to be answered in order to achieve peace," Aliyev added. "If we get peace–then we can sign an agreement which will also be signed by the big world powers–the co-chairmen of the OSCE–the European Union and the United Nations."

Exploiting what one US official called a rare window of opportunity–US Secretary of State Colin Powell has turned to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan to show off his mediating skills. Powell hopes to show the United States at work with Russia and France as co-chair of talks–when he flies into Florida today. If Kocharian and Aliyev make progress at the talks–which are expected to run up to six days–it would be advantageous to Powell’s reputation.

"With the format that is taking place in Key West–we are highlighting the intent to advance a resolution of this problem and increase cooperation between the United States–Russia and France to achieve that goal," the US official said.

The United States sees grounds for optimism that it can bring an end to the first major ethnic dispute to erupt in the waning days of the Soviet Union–bringing stability to a region where Russia–Turkey and Iran also have interests. It is also a region from which Washington would like to export Azeri oil.

Russia has close ties with Armenia and has been accused by Azerbaijan of giving military aid to its rival. Iran would prefer not to see a US foothold established in the region–where about 200 people are killed each year despite the truce–mainly due to snipers and land mines.

Baku has said it is ready to accord autonomy to Karabakh–but insists it must remain part of Azerbaijan. Armenia would like full independence for the region.

Diplomats and experts do not expect a deal to be signed at Key West–but some see the talks as ripe for progress–making them attractive to the US administration. Some experts fear tensions in US-Russian relations may complicate the talks–with Washington and Moscow ordering reciprocal expulsions of 50 diplomats accused of spying.

Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh–who has also led US efforts to resolve conflicts in Georgia and Moldova–will lead the talks for the United States once Powell leaves. He also led the effort on Karabakh for the Clinton administration.

Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution compared Karabakh to the West Bank. She warned against excessive optimism–recalling former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott–had only just left Armenia when gunmen wrecked peace hopes in 1999 by shooting the prime minister dead along with seven other people.


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