Azeri leader rules out concessions before Nagorno-Karabakh talks
By Nailia Bagirova and Nvard Hovhannisyan
BAKU / YEREVAN (Reuters) - Azerbaijan's president on Friday ruled out any concessions to Armenia before talks were held to halt the deadliest fighting in the South Caucasus in more than 25 years.
President Ilham Aliyev's uncompromising position in a televised address seemed to leave little room for de-escalation when the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers arrived in Moscow. The talks were expected to be the first diplomatic contact between the enemies since the beginning of the fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave on September 27, in which hundreds of people were killed.
The mountain enclave belongs to Azerbaijan under international law, but broke off in a war when the Soviet Union collapsed and is populated and ruled by ethnic Armenians.
"Let those who hold talks in Moscow know that it is our territory and that we will not make any concessions," Aliyev said after Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov flew to Moscow.
He said he has proven that there is a military solution to the dispute: "We are winning and will get our territory back and ensure our territorial integrity," said Aliyev. "Let them leave our territory in peace."
Talks in Moscow, attended by Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, followed the launch of a peace campaign by France, Russia and the United States at a meeting in Geneva on Thursday, the details of which have not yet been released.
The renewed fighting in the decades-long conflict has raised fears of major warfare in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, and in Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia.
The clashes have also increased concerns about the safety of pipelines carrying Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe.
The Armenian government said Friday's talks would focus on cessation of hostilities and body and prisoner exchanges.
"We are approaching a ceasefire soon, even if the situation is still fragile," said the office of French President Emmanuel Macron.
However, Turkey said diplomacy would only be successful if it ensured a withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, which the Armenians consider part of their historic homeland.
"It is almost certain that it will fail if it does not include a detailed plan to end the occupation," Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Al Jazeera.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on Friday that Nagorno-Karabakh was on the verge of a "humanitarian catastrophe".
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense said there had been violent clashes with ethnic Armenian forces along the line of contact that separates the two sides on Friday and that several areas deep in Azerbaijan had come under fire.
Shells fell on Stepanakert and the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh consider the capital of an independent state, the enclave's Ministry of Defense said. Armenia denied its armed forces attacked locations in Azerbaijan on Friday.
Washington, Paris and Moscow have been mediating on Nagorno-Karabakh for almost three decades as co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in the European Minsk Group.
The fighting is the worst since a 1991-1994 war that killed around 30,000 people and ended in a ceasefire that was repeatedly injured.
Azerbaijan announced on Thursday that 31 Azerbaijani civilians had been killed and 168 injured since September 27. No information on military casualties was released.
Nagorno-Karabakh said Friday that 376 of its military personnel and 22 civilians had been killed since September 27.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Michel Rose and John Irish in Paris and Alexander Marrow and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, writing by Margarita Antidze and Timothy Heritage, editing by Jon Boyle and Peter Graff)
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