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Colin Powell to prod Azeri and Armenian leaders to make peace

At the heart of the dispute is the status of Nagarno-Karabakh, an enclave inside Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have met 16 times over the years in hopes of ending their long-simmering dispute and will meet yet again this week – this time with the balmy Florida resort city of Key West as the venue and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as host.

Powell will join presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Haydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan at the Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West for talks on Tuesday and then depart, leaving the two sides to continue discussions for several additional days. Negotiating teams from the United States, France and Russia will be on hand to help out.

A senior State Department official, briefing reporters, said the administration hopes the two sides can narrow differences and build as much as possible on common ground. The most recent meetings between Kocharian and Aliyev were Jan. 26-27 and March 4-5 in Paris.

At the heart of the dispute is the status of Nagarno-Karabakh, an enclave inside Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians.

Armenia won control of Nagarno-Karabakh in a war that ended in a truce in 1994. Sporadic clashes have continued since then. A final settlement over the status of the enclave’s high mountains and thick forests, regarded by Armenians as their spiritual heartland, has never been reached.

The war drove more than a million people from their homes. Separatists backed by Armenia pushed out the vast majority of the Azerbaijanis living in the enclave. Despite the truce, an average of about 200 people per year die as a result of the conflict.

The U.S. official said upwards of 600,000 people are living in refugee camps and railroad cars and villages of mud huts.

The United States, France and Russia are three are co-chairmen of a subgroup of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe that has been trying the resolve the conflict for more than a decade.

The absence of a settlement has significantly impaired the economic development of the two countries, said the official, who spoke under ground rules shielding his identity,

He said one concern is that renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan could bring about a wider war, possibly involving the neighboring countries of Iran, Turkey and Russia.

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