- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

KEY WEST, Fla. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday began a fresh round of talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, saying the United States is committed to efforts to bring peace to the South Caucasus region.

After brief meetings with Presidents Gaidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia, Mr. Powell said the two former Soviet republics have made recent progress toward a settlement although important differences still exist.

"The negotiations are very, very difficult," Mr. Powell told reporters. He added that it would be premature to suggest that the talks in Key West's Little White House would finally settle the decades-old conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh district.

In a news conference dominated by questions on the U.S. spy-plane dispute with China, Mr. Powell said President Bush is carefully watching the Key West negotiations and would wish to meet with the two presidents whenever they achieve a settlement.

The secretary of state said these talks are "just one step on a long road, not the be-all, end-all meeting to get every aspect of this negotiation completed."

Other diplomatic sources confirmed that more sessions are likely to be required.

One of Washington's concerns is that the situation remains volatile and that renewed fighting between the two South Caucasus nations might cause a wider war involving the neighboring countries of Iran, Russia and Turkey.

"A peaceful settlement is key to the future of the South Caucasus and the greater region," Mr. Powell said yesterday. "Peace and stability in this region, a crossroads between Europe and Asia, is in the interest of the international community and the cause of world peace."

Mr. Powell arrived here yesterday morning and departed for Washington in the afternoon after meetings with presidents.

The summit is sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

There have been 16 meetings between the two sides. Mr. Kocharian and Mr. Aliev have met most recently Jan 26-27 and March 4-5 in Paris.

The current talks are to last four days, with the possibility of a weekend extension.

The dispute centers on the status of the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave inside Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians. Armenians also regard this district as their spiritual heartland.

Nagorno-Karabakh is now controlled by Armenia as a result of a war that ended in 1994.

Despite a truce, sporadic clashes have continued and Armenia separatists have driven hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis out of the enclave.

U.S. officials estimate that over a million people have been forced from their homes as a result of the conflict.

Some 600,000 people are living in refugee camps, railroad cars and villages made out of mud huts.

The conflict has reportedly cost the lives of 35,000 people and some 200 have been killed annually since 1994, largely due to land mines and sniper fire.

Economic development of the region has also lagged because of the dispute.

Key West was chosen for the summit in the hope that the community's "tranquil" subtropical character might contribute something fresh to the diplomatic effort, which is being monitored by teams from the United States, Russia and France.

This is not the first time diplomats have met on business in the Little White House, the former naval quarters where former President Harry S. Truman took his cronies to play some warm-weather poker in a town closer in distance to Havana than Miami.

Former President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan held a summit at the Little White House in 1961 for one day of talks on the situation in Southeast Asia.

The U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba occurred three weeks later.

NATO held a meeting in Key West a year ago.

Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was host of a biannual session for leaders of the armed forces of Great Britain, France and Germany.

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