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Clinton Presses Armenia, Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh Settlement

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Sunday with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to press for progress toward settling their long-standing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Clinton completes her brief visit to the southern Caucasus region Monday in Georgia.  

She delivered the same message in Yerevan and Baku: that settling the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, on the basis of principles offered by international mediators, will open the way for political and economic gains that have eluded the region thus far.

The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian enclave controlled by Armenian forces within the borders of Azerbaijan, has been a sources of periodic violence since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, including clashes in recent weeks.

The United States and its partners in the Minsk Group, France and Russia, have been trying to defuse the issue with confidence-building interim proposals aimed at spurring direct negotiations.

Clinton, beginning her day in Baku was told by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that peace requires an Armenian troop withdrawal. "As you know, for many years, our lands are under occupation.  The United Nations Security Council, the OSCE, European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Islamic Conference organization, all have adopted resolutions which reflect the situation and which demand the withdrawal of Armenian troops from internationally-recognized territories of Azerbaijan," she said.

Hours later in Yerevan, the Secretary was meeting with Armenian President Sergh Sarkisyan, who depicted the conflict as a struggle for self determination for Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic-Armenian majority.

"The people of Nagorno Karabakh have a right for free development and advancement on their historic land.  And the right of people for self-determination is one of the most fundamental principles of international law, which has been the basis of independence of most countries in the world today," Sarkisyan said.

Nagorno-Karabakh is considered one of the "frozen conflicts" of the southern European-Caucasus region, but the lethal clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed area last month underline its volatility.

Meeting with reporters after her meeting with the Armenian president, Clinton said the clashes are unacceptable violations of a 1994 cease-fire and contrary to the stated commitments of both sides.

She said the United States urges them to refrain from the threat of, and use of, force and apply themselves to the Minsk peace process and completing basic principles leading to a final settlement.

"Everyone knows these are difficult steps to take, but we believe they are important ones and we have expressed our concern to both presidents today that the return to violence is unacceptable.  We regret the incidents of the last several weeks.  And it is in the interests, first and foremost of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, but certainly of Azerbaijan, Armenia and the greater region, to work as hard as we can together to come up with an acceptable, lasting settlement of this conflict," Clinton said.

Clinton, who is to spend several hours Monday in Georgia, reaffirmed her call for Russia to end what she termed the "continuing occupation" of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 2008 war with Georgia.

But she said the Obama administration believes it is possible to pursue a "comprehensive common agenda" with Moscow without disagreements on such issues as Georgia, as she put it, "freezing our relationship."

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