During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Powell Gets First Chance at Mediation with Nagorno-Karabakh Talks

From CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott
April 4, 2001

KEY WEST, Florida (CNN) - Secretary of State Colin Powell takes his first steps as a mediator for the Bush administration Tuesday as he hosts the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan for peace talks aimed at ending the 13-year-old conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh province.

Powell arrived in Florida amid an escalating conflict between China and the United States over an American military airplane that was forced to land in China.

As Powell landed, U.S. diplomats were waiting to meet with members of the military plane's crew after a near 72-hour standoff.

As co-chair of the Nagorno-Karabakh talks with Russia and France, Powell will seek to end one of the first major ethnic conflicts to rise out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has threatened the growth of the Caspian region.

Drawing parallels to the conflict in the Middle East, a senior State Department official said the United States "never underestimates how hard it is to find compromises that can work for both sides, that can effectively advance conflicts that have roots [that go back] decades or even centuries."

Cease-fire Is Shaky
The mostly ethnic Armenian province sought independence from Azerbaijan in 1988, prompting a bloody six-year battle that killed 35,000. About one million people, mostly Azeris, were driven from their homes.

A 1994 cease-fire left the territory under Armenian control, along with a surrounding area of Azerbaijan. But the truce is shaky, and about 200 people have been killed each year as a result of land mines and snipers, the senior State Department official said.

Armenia wants independence for the region. Azerbaijan has said it wants control over Nagorno-Karabakh, while providing broad autonomy to the province. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been leading mediation efforts in conjunction with Russia, France and the United States. The leaders of both countries have met 16 times in the past two years, most recently in France last month with President Chirac, but have failed to reach an agreement.

But U.S. officials expressed fresh optimism that a new round of talks could end up stabilizing a region it sees as an important oil source and international transit route from Asia to Europe. "The United States recognizes how rare sometimes these windows of opportunity can be," the senior official said.

The United States also recognizes the volatile nature of the region, and the involvement of regional powers on both sides of the conflict. Turkey, a NATO partner, has sided with Azerbaijan, while Russia is suspected of giving military aid to its ally, Armenia, to fight Azerbaijan. Iran, which also has ties to Armenia, has not been pleased with U.S. interests in the Caspian region.

"It is not a region that anyone would welcome renewed fighting in," the senior official said. "It creates a high incentive on doing whatever possible to facilitate resolution of that conflict." Major conflict feared Sevante Cornell, an expert on the subject at Johns Hopkins University, said a fresh eruption of the conflict would involve more sophisticated weaponry than in previous years and would be far more dangerous. "If it erupts again, it could lead to a major conflict between great powers in the region, which will undoubtedly affect the U.S. as well," he said.

Powell will bring the two sides together for the opening of the talks, which are expected to last for several days under intense mediation by Russian, French and American diplomats. Powell comes to the talks amid tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship over the expulsion of diplomats from both countries because of charges of espionage.

Cornell said Russia might resent the new U.S. interest in the region and its attempt to control the talks. "Russia would probably want to be the patron of a deal and not the United States ... because Russia sees this as part of the former Soviet Union and in its own backyard," he said.

Mediators hope to 'narrow the differences' Diplomats do not expect an agreement to be signed during the six days of meetings. Azerbaijan has demanded new ideas after rejecting three OSCE proposals.

"The results that we hope for in Key West are to narrow the differences between the parties, and to build as much as we can on common ground," the senior State Department official said. There are no proposals on the table thus far, but one could come out of the talks, he added.

© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.

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