08 Dec 2023, 22:17

Armenia, Azerbaijan agree to take steps towards normalisation

   YEREVAN, Dec  8, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Arch-foes Armenia and Azerbaijan have

said they will exchange prisoners of war and work towards normalising
relations, a breakthrough that has been hailed internationally.
       The Caucasus neighbours have long fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region,
which Azerbaijan reclaimed after a lightning offensive against Armenian
separatists in September.
       Peace talks -- mediated separately by the European Union, the United States
and Russia -- had seen little progress but both countries still say a peace
agreement could be signed by the end of this year.
       The two sides agreed in a joint statement late Thursday to seize "a
historical chance to achieve a long-awaited peace in the region".
       "The two countries reconfirm their intention to normalize relations and to
reach the peace treaty," the statement said.
       Baku will free 32 Armenian prisoners of war, while Yerevan will release two
Azerbaijani servicemen, according to the statement.
       They also agreed to continue discussions on "more confidence building
measures, effective in the near future".
       - COP29 -
       As a sign of good faith, Armenia said it was withdrawing its bid to host
UN-led climate talks next year, paving the way for Azerbaijan's candidacy.
       The annual negotiations on fighting climate change, known as COPs, rotate
among regions and were due to be hosted by an Eastern European country in 2024
after this year's COP28 in Dubai.
       "Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan do hope that the other countries
within the Eastern European Group will also support Azerbaijan's bid to host,"
the statement read.
       A grouping of Eastern European nations must unanimously choose the COP29
host, with Russia reportedly opposing an EU member holding the event.
       As non-EU members, Armenia and Azerbaijan were both seen as candidates.
       - 'Key step' -
       EU Council President Charles Michel praised the statement, calling it a
"key step" and a "major breakthrough in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations."
       US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller also hailed "an important
confidence building measure as the sides work to finalize a peace agreement and
normalize relations."
       Armenia's foreign ministry said Yerevan had "responded positively" to US
Secretary of State Antony Blinken's offer to organise a meeting of the Armenian
and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Washington.
       Russian and Turkish foreign ministries both "welcomed " the breakthrough,
with Baku's ally Ankara expressing hope that a peace agreement between
Azerbaijan and Armenia will be signed "as soon as possible."
       - Stalled talks -
       Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham
Aliyev have met several times for normalisation talks mediated by Michel.
       But the process stalled over the last two months as two negotiation rounds
failed to take place.
       Azerbaijan refused to participate in talks with Armenia that were planned
in the United States on November 20, over what it said was Washington's
"biased" position.
       In October, Aliyev declined to attend negotiations with Pashinyan in Spain,
that time accusing France of bias.
       French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had been
scheduled to join Michel as mediators at those talks.
       There has been no visible progress so far in EU efforts to organise a fresh
round of negotiations.
       The traditional regional power broker Russia has seen its influence wane in
the Caucasus.
       Aliyev sent troops to Karabakh on September 19, and after just one day of
fighting, Armenian separatist forces that had controlled the disputed region
for three decades laid down arms and agreed to reintegrate with Baku.
       Almost the entire Armenian population of the mountainous enclave -- more
than 100,000 people -- fled Karabakh for Armenia, sparking a refugee crisis.
       Azerbaijan's victory marked the end of the territorial dispute, which led
to wars in 2020 and the 1990s that claimed tens of thousands of lives from both