BAKU: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday warned of possible “disastrous consequences” after a flare-up of deadly violence between ex-Soviet enemies Azerbaijan and Armenia. Clinton held talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku as the reported death toll in gunbattles between the two neighbors this week rose to nine amid the worst clashes since 2010. After the talks, she said she was “deeply concerned about the danger of escalating tension, which could have unpredictable and disastrous consequences.”
“This cycle of violence and retaliation must end,” she said. Baku and Yerevan are locked in a bitter unresolved conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, which Armenia-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan in a bloody war in the 1990s. An Armenian soldier was killed in a firefight in Karabakh yesterday, separatist officials in the region said-an incident that followed the deaths of five Azerbaijani troops and three Armenians in clashes on their mutual border on Monday and Tuesday.
The United States is a co-chair with Russia and France of the OSCE Minsk Group, which was set up after the 1994 Karabakh ceasefire to help bring a resolution to the conflict. But no peace deal has yet been signed and the conflict remains unresolved, leaving Armenia suffering economically from closed borders with Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, while Baku has grown richer on its Caspian Sea oil deposits. The United States has sought to balance its relationship with both countries, pressed on one side by the large American Armenian community and Washington’s strategic interests in the Caspian basin on the other.
Clinton visited an oil and gas trade exposition being held in Baku, highlighting the $8 billion that US energy companies have invested in Azerbaijan since independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union. She said later she appreciated “the central role that Azerbaijan plays in efforts to diversify supplies of oil and gas as well as the routes over which they are transported.” Azerbaijan sits astride pipelines that carry oil from the Caspian Sea through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean, offering a southern alternative to a northern route through Russia.
Clinton said the United States also supports a proposed new pipeline that would transport natural gas to Europe, which currently depends heavily on Russia for gas supplies. During her five-hour stay, she also met with representatives of civil society groups-a show of concern for rights and democracy in a country that has been accused of clamping down on dissent and muzzling free speech. She said she told Aliyev that fostering a vibrant civil society and democracy was “essential to the long-term success and prosperity of Azerbaijan.”
“The United States remains strongly committed to working with the government and people to advance respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” she said. “We, as we always do, urge the government to respect their citizens’ rights to express their views peacefully and to release those who have been detained for doing so, in print or on the streets, or for defending human rights.”-AFP