Armenia, Azerbaijan leaders meet in France

The leaders of Armenia and Azberbaijan meet separately with the French president Friday before crucial talks to end an 18-year-old conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mediators for the two-day talks in Rambouillet, south of Paris , were more hopeful than they have been in years that a settlement is close.

The bloody six-year war and 12 ensuing years of simmering hostilities in Karabakh have scared off investors and hobbled peace efforts throughout the strategic and oil-rich Caucasus region. The mountainous enclave is inside Azerbaijan , but populated largely by ethnic Armenians who have run it since an uneasy cease-fire in 1994.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev meet separately with French counterpart Jacques Chirac in Paris before heading out to Rambouillet. The talks were scheduled for later Friday and Saturday.

While an end to the conflict remains far off, signs are increasing that the presidents could agree on a framework that would be used to build a peace accord. A senior U.S. State Department official said Thursday he was hopeful about the talks, calling them the most important meetings on Karabakh in five years. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said both presidents understand that 2006 could be a crucial year.

U.S. , French and Russian negotiators have been pushing for more than a decade for an agreement to end the fighting. At least 30,000 were killed and 1 million displaced in the 1988-1994 war. Sporadic border clashes have continued, killing scores of people a year and villages in and around the enclave remain heavily armed, reports the AP.


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