Russia calms Azeris on Armenia base

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Russia sought Friday to calm Azerbaijan about its military presence in the Caucasuses region following claims by Armenia that a deal extending a Russian base also significantly expands its role.

The deal extending the lease "doesn't change the functions of the Russian military base in Armenia, the number of the soldiers stationed there, or the amount of weapons kept in the base," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in response to questions by Azeri journalists.

Russia and Armenia signed on August 20 an agreement extending Moscow's lease on the former Soviet military base in the western Armenian town of Gyumri to 2044.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said at the signing ceremony that the new agreement boosts Russia's military role in the South Caucasus, a volatile region wedged between Russia, Iran and NATO member Turkey.

"Russia has taken on the obligation to jointly guarantee the military security of the republic of Armenia and to accordingly equip our armed forces with modern weaponry," Sarkisian said.

The deal "not only prolongs the presence of the Russian base in Armenia, but also expands the sphere of its geographic and strategic responsibility," Sarkisian said.

The agreement raised alarm bells in neighbouring Azerbaijan, which is locked in a long-simmering conflict with Yerevan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region, and in Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia two years ago.

Tensions remain high over Karabakh, where ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan broke from Baku's control during a war in the early 1990s that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.

At least 10 Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers have been killed in skirmishes over the region this year.

© 2010 AFP

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