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Armenia and Azerbaijan Make Progress During Peace Talks

By Norman Kempster

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan told President Bush on Monday that they have made substantial progress in talks aimed at ending more than 12 years of ethnic conflict over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a senior U.S. official said.

“We were surprised at how far they came,” one official said in reference to negotiations last week in Key West, Fla., between Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and Azerbaijani President Heydar A. Aliyev.

The official said Bush encouraged Kocharyan and Aliyev during separate meetings in the Oval Office to “keep at the process.” The rivals agreed to resume their talks in Geneva in June.

Two administration officials briefed reporters at the White House on the condition that they not be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the talks.

The optimistic assessment of the U.S. mediators was echoed by spokesmen for both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

U.S. officials said Kocharyan and Aliyev agreed to keep confidential the details of their talks, which are aimed at settling a conflict that began over ten years ago in 1988, when both countries were republics of the Soviet Union.

After six years of fighting, the combatants declared a cease fire in 1994. However, the truce is an uneasy one, with several hundred casualties a year from land mines and sniper fire.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave in Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population. In 1988, Armenian separatists declared independence. Backed by the Armenian government, the separatists gained control of the mountainous territory and an adjacent belt of land between it and Armenia proper.

Although the Key West talks marked the 16th time that Kocharyan and Aliyev have met, there was a substantial change in format in last week’s negotiations.