No End in Sight to Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

A cease-fire has been in place for years, but Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers kill each other every week in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States, Russia and France have been trying to negotiate a settlement.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

A sputtering border conflict in the Caucasus continues to dog relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are daily skirmishes around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the leaders of both sides have been ratcheting up the rhetoric. American and Russian diplomats have tried to mediate between the two former Soviet republics. Washington and Moscow agree the conflict is a major threat to regional stability.

NPR's Ivan Watson visited the frontlines on the Azerbaijani side and filed this report.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a cease-fire over Nagorno-Karabakh more than a decade ago. That's hard to believe though, if you look at the bullet holes that riddle the front gate of Nashaba Sakurava's(ph) farmhouse.

Ms. NASHABA SAKURAVA (Azerbaijani Resident): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Sakurava says Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers blast away at each other every day here. The woman's house sits on the front lines next to the trenches and fields of land mines that divide Azerbaijani soldiers from Armenian troops dug in just a few dozen yards away. Sakurava's family erected concrete barriers in front of the ground floor windows of her house and evacuated the second floor to avoid the gunfire.

Nearby, Azerbaijani soldiers march in formation in a muddy field.

(Soundbite of Azerbaijani soldiers)

WATSON: Five men from this garrison were killed during an intense month of skirmishes here last year. These conscripts say they're ready to fight to take back land in Nagorno-Karabakh that they claim Armenia stole from Azerbaijan.

Mr. ELMAR MAMMADYAROV (Foreign Minister, Azerbaijan): The clashes on the line of contact, as we say, we can hear it every day. The shootings, the casualties, wounds, unfortunately that's happened.

WATSON: Elmar Mammadyarov is the foreign minister of Azerbaijan. Last month, after the failure of yet another round of peace talks with Armenia, Azerbaijan's president announced his government would dramatically increase defense spending to exceed what Armenia spends on its entire national budget. What makes that possible is a big jump in Azerbaijan's oil revenues.

Again, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.

Mr. MAMMADYAROV: The issue of the military development or increasing the capacity of the armed forces, it's always been (unintelligible) on the table.

WATSON: Until the 1994 cease-fire, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh killed more than 30,000 people and left more than a million homeless. A Western diplomat in Baku says that if full-fledged hostilities resumed, the death toll would likely be much higher, due to the much larger number of troops now deployed along the front lines.

Mr. MATT BRYZA (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Caucasus Region): Of course we're worried about shooting across the line of contact and we're always worried about any belligerent rhetoric that could come out of either capital.

WATSON: Matt Bryza is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Caucasus region. He says the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also poses the largest potential threat to the security of a new $4 billion U.S.-backed oil pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea, which runs within a few dozen miles of the Nagorno-Karabakh front lines.

For years, Bryza says, the U.S. government has been working together with Russia and France to broker a settlement.

Mr. BRYZA: And ultimately, it's up to the two presidents, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, President Kocharian of Armenia, to make some very tough political decisions, and again, prepare their populations for compromise.

WATSON: Those most desperate for a solution are the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who still live in refugee camps more than a decade after the war.

(Soundbite of people at refugee camp)

WATSON: At this camp several dozen miles east of Nagorno-Karabakh, hundreds of Azerbaijani families live in clay houses, surviving on food rations. The men are almost all unemployed and they say they would prefer a peaceful solution, but add that they are ready to go back to war with Armenia to get their homes back.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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