U.S.’s Clinton Visits Clashing Caucasus

U.S.’s Clinton Visits Clashing Caucasus

Published: June 6, 2012 (Issue # 1711)


U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Armenian President Serz Sarkisian (second from left) shake hands in Yerevan on Monday.

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Tuesday that five of its soldiers were killed in clashes with Armenian troops alongside the border separating the two countries, deepening tensions between the two former Soviet nations.

The ministry said in a statement that exchanges of gunfire have been reported over the last two days at numerous points along Azerbaijan’s western border. Armenia had said earlier that three of its soldiers died in the clashes.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have for two decades been at odds over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which lies within Azerbaijan, but was taken over by Armenia during a six-year war that killed about 30,000 people and displaced 1 million.

The incidents come just as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has embarked on a tour of the South Caucasus in the hope of mediating progress in territorial disputes in the region.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said one clash took place near the village of Ashagy Askipara early Tuesday morning, after their soldiers were attacked by Armenian commandos. Four Azeri troops were killed in the fighting, officials said. Another soldier died in a separate incident, the ministry said.

Armenia on Monday said three of its soldiers were killed and another six were wounded in villages nearby.

Clinton decried the “senseless deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians” as part of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — just hours after Monday’s border clash.

“I am very concerned about the danger of escalation of tensions and the senseless deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians,” Clinton told reporters after a dinner with Armenia’s president and foreign minister. “The use of force will not resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” she said, urging the sides to refrain from violence.

Warning that Azeri-Armenian tensions could escalate into a broader conflict with terrible consequences, Clinton said the U.S. would continue to press with France, Russia and others on mediation efforts.

Violations of the cease-fire have been frequent, and diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict have failed. The U.S. hopes that at the least Armenia and Azerbaijan can agree to a set of basic principles that might lead to peace. These include the return of territories and uprooted people to their homes, and an eventual vote on the area’s future.

Washington also wants to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey, whose enmity reflects the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Ottoman Empire-era killing of some 1.5 million Armenians.

The Obama administration has tried hard to help Armenia improve its economy, not least as a nod to the influential Armenian-American community, which is particularly strong in the Los Angeles area. Clinton, making her second trip to the region as secretary of state, helped Armenia and Turkey reach an agreement in 2009 that would have opened up their borders and normalized relations.

But the deal stalled back as Turkey’s parliament refused to ratify it.

“The ball remains in Turkey’s court,” Clinton lamented.

Armenia’s problems are compounded by its geography. Cut off from trade with its booming neighbor Azerbaijan on one side and Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey on the other, it must conduct all its international commerce through Georgia and Russia to the north. It is heavily dependent on Moscow for fuel.

In Georgia on Tuesday Clinton participated in a strategic dialogue with Georgian officials at the Black Sea resort of Batumi.

Central to the talks were the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They declared independence after Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war in 2008. Russian forces protect them.

Clinton reiterated U.S. opposition to Russia’s “occupation” of the provinces.

In Azerbaijan, America’s top diplomat plans to continue efforts toward a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, while addressing democracy and media freedom shortcomings. But she’ll also underline oil-rich Azerbaijan’s close cooperation with the U.S. on counterterrorism and its booming economy, which has expanded fourfold since 2004, attending an energy industry gathering in the capital of Baku to promote American companies and future investments.

She will likely speak to officials as well about Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran.

Azerbaijan has arrested dozens of people it claims were hired by the Islamic republic to carry out attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies, as well as Western-linked groups and companies.

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