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Armenian, Azeri Diplomats Set Up Crucial Summit On Karabakh

By Harry Tamrazian in Prague

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said late Thursday that he and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov ascertained the agenda of the upcoming crucial meeting of their presidents during two days of “positive” talks in London.

Oskanian said Presidents Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia will meet in France early next month to try to take a decisive step towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“It was an important meeting, but let’s not overly exaggerate it because its purpose was to prepare the presidents’ next meeting which most probably will take place during the first half of February,” he told RFE/RL from the British capital. “In that sense, the meeting served its purpose because we basically made our positions clear to each other.

“Now we will go back to our capitals and communicate all this to our presidents, and the presidents will attend that meeting better prepared, knowing what to expect and what the position of the other side is.”

Mammadyarov was also reportedly satisfied with the London talks mediated by the French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Azerbaijani media quoted him as describing them as “intensive and meaningful.”

According to Oskanian, the talks focused on the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement that are contained in a “half-page text” put forward by the mediators. “It serves as a guideline for talks between the ministers and also the presidents. Once the principles have been agreed to, they could serve as a basis for a more detailed document,” he said.

“We do have closer positions on some of those principles, but on some [other principles] our positions are still far apart,” Oskanian added without elaborating. “We’ve got to continue to work and there is always the hope that during the presidents’ meeting we will have progress on whatever the ministers couldn’t achieve.”

Oskanian said France has offered to host the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit on its soil. “The venue and the exact date of the meeting will be finalized by the French side in the coming days,” he said.

French President Jacques Chirac had already arranged a key meeting between Kocharian and Ilham’s late father and predecessor Heydar in Paris in March 2001. The two men reportedly agreed on the main points of a Karabakh peace deal which Armenian officials say was finalized during an ensued peace conference in Florida. The deal eventually fell through, however.

Expectations from the forthcoming Aliev-Kocharian meeting are unusually high. Some Western officials have indicated that they expect the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to clear the final hurdle to a long-awaited compromise settlement that would reportedly culminated in a referendum on independence in Karabakh.

However, Aliev’s top foreign policy aide, Novruz Mamedov, was quoted by the Baku daily “Ekho” on Friday as saying that while 2006 may see “certain steps” towards Karabakh peace, the two presidents are unlikely to sign any agreements at their “first meeting of the year.”

Oskanian also sounded a note of caution when asked about the possibility of a breakthrough. “It’s difficult to make that kind of judgment,” he said. “But one should hope that the presidents will be able to register progress.”

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