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Azerbaijan, Armenia presidents meet on breakaway region

The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia met in Bern Saturday to discuss their countries’ decades-old conflict over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region amid a recent wave of clashes.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last met in 2014 in Paris without making any tangible progress over the territory disputed since the early 1990s.

Saturday’s talks too appeared to make little headway.

“During the meeting, the two sides exchanged views on different aspects of the conflict resolution. Unfortunately, the two sides’ attitudes don’t coincide,” Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian told journalists in comments broadcast on Armenian television.

Nalbandian, who along with his Azerbaijani counterpart joined Saturday’s talks after the presidents’ initial tete-a-tete, said the meeting agenda had been “influenced by the escalation of the situation, by Azerbaijani provocations, by blatant violations of the ceasefire.”

In recent months there has been an unprecedented escalation of the conflict, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mediators recently warned “the status quo has become unsustainable.”

On Saturday, the OSCE’s Minsk Group said the talks had been useful, stressing that they “created an opportunity for the presidents to clarify their respective positions.”

The two countries fought a bloody conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, in the 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.

They reached a tenuous ceasefire in 1994 but have not signed a peace deal.

Clashes still erupt regularly along the border shared by the two ex-Soviet states. Just on Saturday Karabakh’s defence ministry said that Azerbaijani troops killed an Armenian soldier across the territory’s frontline.

The Azerbaijani defence ministry meanwhile said Friday that at least four Azerbaijani soldiers were killed this month in clashes with Armenians.

Hiking tensions further, Azerbaijani tanks earlier this month shelled positions in the breakaway region, marking the first time it had done so since the ceasefire was agreed more than 20 years ago.

Azerbaijan maintained Armenia had first fired mortar rounds at settlements in its country.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who hosted Saturday’s meeting, said in a statement that “the Nagorny Karabakh conflict could only be resolved by a comprehensive negotiation process.”

Despite being downbeat about the outcome, Armenia’s Nalbandian also described the encounter as “extremely important”.

“It is extremely important that talks continue as dialogue has no alternative,” he told journalists, adding that “the more such meetings take place, the more chances we have to decrease tensions in the conflict zone, to advance the conflict settlement.”