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Nagorno-Karabakh Presidential Election to Proceed Despite Azeri Protest - 2002-08-09

Presidential elections are scheduled for Sunday in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian-populated enclave located inside Azerbaijan. Azeri officials are rejecting the vote as illegal. Separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh say Sunday's presidential election will prove their rule is legal and democratic.

The scheduled elections are the third to be held since the enclave declared independence from Azerbaijan in December, 1991.

But officials in Baku, which also lays claim to the mostly Armenian-populated enclave, call the planned elections nothing more than a crude violation of international law.

In a written statement carried in official newspapers, Azeri officials said the elections were an example of Armenia's attempts to lend legitimacy to what the officials called a self-proclaimed regime.

Russia and the European Union have joined Azerbaijan in denouncing the upcoming elections as a challenge to Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.

Russian Foreign Ministry official Boris Malakhov says Moscow does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. Mr. Malakhov also stressed Moscow's view that a viable solution will only be found through international mediation and not elections.

Russia, France and the United States, working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have tried for years to no avail to mediate a peace deal between the two former warring parties.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the territory in the early 1990's, but there has been a tense standoff ever since a cease-fire was declared in 1994.

Armenia's Foreign Minister rejects any criticism of the elections, saying Azerbaijan has no basis for insisting on the principle of territorial integrity.

Sunday's elections are set to take place three days before Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijan's President, Geidar Aliev, hold their first direct bilateral talks in months. The issue of the elections is sure to be high on the agenda.